REED CITY -- Speaking to an audience of one, Sen. Curt VanderWall presented an overview of several bills currently being considered in the House and Senate during his monthly coffee hour, July 20, at the Reed City Depot.

One of the big issues on the table right now is whether or not to open up schools in the fall, VanderWall said. The House and Senate leaders proposed a return to school plan in late June which includes $800 per student to implement distance learning plans and health and safety measures to return students to the classroom.

The proposal also includes a one-time $500 stipend for frontline teachers, and possibly cafeteria staff, janitors and others, and $80 million to school districts to assist in coordinating and implementing distance learning and safe learning plans.

"We need to come up with safety platforms that enable us to send our students back to school," VanderWall said. "I feel very strongly that if we don't send students back this fall, the public school system will be in serious trouble because parents will be making the decision to home school. I don't know how we meet our attendance numbers in the public schools if that many students get pulled out."

Public school funding is based on the number of students enrolled and the average daily attendance in the school.

"We know we will need to implement things like social distancing inside the classroom, but if we tell a parent their child is going to have to wear a mask for seven hours during the school day, they are not going to do that," he continued. "I have had a number of parents tell me if that is the policy, they will not be sending their child to school."

VanderWall said another concern with the public school situation is that once a child is removed from the system and is home schooled, the districts will lose the connection with that student and will not have the opportunity to follow the student and ensure that he/she is meeting the standards set forth by the state.

"We are looking at a potential of 18 percent of parents not sending their children back to school under the mandates by the governor," Vander Wall said. "We have to maintain contact with those students. We hold the public school system pretty hard tasked on testing, and if somebody doesn't send their child to school for three years, then suddenly he/she is put back into the system, if they are behind academically, the school is penalized for that."

"We need to make sure we are protecting the rights of parents, but also that students are keeping up academically." he continued. "Home school or private school, whatever the choice is, we need to know those students are meeting the state standards."

Trintiy Lutheran School principal Rich Saladin said he was concerned about Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel filing a lawsuit to prevent the federal COVID-19 school relief funds from going to private schools.

"The money was there for COVID-19 response," Saladin said. "It wasn't an education bill, it was a COVID-19 response bill, and I think they are taking the wrong direction on that. All students should be treated equally under that bill."

VanderWall said the response from the Senate was that the money was to go to each student and did not differentiate between public or private schools.

"She (Gov. Whitmer) is holding back the COVID-19 money but is putting the same mandates on private schools for reopening," Saladin said. "So, there are concerns about how we do that. The governor is giving us six weeks to develop a plan to reopen.

"The hardest part is trying to figure out how to support different learning styles, but I don't want state money if it comes with all those mandates."

VanderWall said he would look into the issue of the COVID-19 funding and the mandates imposed on public and private schools.

Among the bills currently being considered by the House and Senate is a bill to address COVID-19 in nursing homes. The bill prevents any individual who has tested positive for the virus from being admitted to a nursing facility until they have fully recovered.

"Hopefully, if we have a situation like this again in the future, those people will be protected," VanderWall said. "The majority of COVID-19 deaths in the state are from nursing homes. We are continuing to work on that."

The bill passed in the Senate 24 to 13 and was referred to the House Health Policy Committee.

Another bill dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic is a property tax relief bill giving taxpayers until March 2021 to pay their 2020 Summer tax bills. The bill has passed both the House and Senate and is awaiting Whitmer's signature.

"We got that passed through, and that will bring some tax relief for the flooding and the COVID-19 pandemic," VanderWall said. "I had a tax relief bill for small businesses that would delay their taxes, as well, but the governor vetoed that.

"We have been in conversations as to whether we want to try to renegotiate that with the governor, or do an override," he continued. "An override can create animosity and tension, but our small businesses need some relief. They have been hard pressed to get any relief from the COVID-19 acts, so that is what we are trying to do. We need our small businesses to survive. We can't afford to let them suffer, so we still have some work to do there."

During the meeting, VanderWall addressed the budget shortfalls expected in the fiscal year 2021 budget, saying it could be as much as $4 billion.

Legislation has been enacted to delay the June 30 deadline for budget finalization for one year, he said. With budget committees continuing to meet, the Consensus Revenue Estimating Conference figures, which estimated in May that the budget shortfall would be more than $3 billion, will set the stage for how to proceed.

"My concern is how do we make up that shortfall," VanderWall said. "Where will that money come from. We've shut things down, and if we have to go through another shut down I don't know what we will do."

"The issue is that we will have to pay for this pandemic fallout for years to come," he continued. "We will continue to work on the budget, we will negotiate with the governor, but we are going to take a hit."

Senate Bill 690, which was enacted July 1, appropriates $880 million of the Federal Coronavirus Relief Fund to cover state revenue shortfalls in the fiscal year 2020 budget.

It includes $1 million in relief funds to Agricultural and Rural Development, $143 million to Education, $193 million to Health and Human Services, $214 million to Labor and Economic Opportunity, $1.4 million to Licensing and Regulatory Affairs and $328 million to the Treasury.

Other bills in progress, VanderWall said, include an expungement package that modifies the circumstances under which an individual convicted of a criminal offense can apply to have the conviction set aside, a mental health code update that will allow a physician assistant to work with mental health patients as a mental health professional, and a bill that amends the public health code to reflect the immunization schedule recommended by the CDC.

VanderWall said he does not support the immunization bill because it reduces parental rights and school districts' ability to accept exemptions.

"I feel this is something that we should not be mandating to parents," VanderWall said. "They can educate themselves and when it comes to vaccinations, they need to make that call."

He added that the mental health code update would have a significant impact on the states ability to deal with the mental health crisis.

"Right now, people that need help are being discharged, or not being taken care of properly," VanderWall said. "Some hospitals have mental health patients in their emergency rooms as long as six months unable to get the help they need. This bill will give those hospitals more flexibility and enable them to get the patients the help they need."

VanderWall hosts monthly coffee hours throughout his district. For information on dates and times, visit senatorcurtvanderwall.com.