U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., had a message for young adults in her coronavirus town hall this week: “the young and the healthy are also being hit by this disease … nobody’s invincible.” 

In Wednesday’s virtual town hall, Dingell, whose district includes Ann Arbor, described Congress’s response to the pandemic, laid out what else she would like to see be done and fielded questions from constituents. First, she made sure to thank workers in health care and other essential industries for their role in helping to fight COVID-19.

“I want to take this moment to thank all of our health care workers on the front lines of this crisis. They’re putting themselves at risk every day … potentially exposing themselves because they are taking care of the people they love in our community and taking care of the sickest among us,” Dingell said.

While the town hall covered many subjects, Dingell talked in detail about the virus’s impact on K-12 education. Joining her to help answer questions were David Hecker and Paula Herbert, the presidents of Michigan’s two largest teachers’ unions, the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and the Michigan Education Association, respectively. Preeti Malani, the chief health officer of Michigan Medicine and an infectious diseases expert, also joined the call.

Dingell discussed the steps Congress has taken to help keep the economy afloat during the coronavirus pandemic, including securing $1,200 checks for most Americans, grants and loans for small businesses and an extra $600 to weekly unemployment insurance. 

Several questions concerned the effect of the coronavirus on students and the best way to adapt to this new reality. As Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has ordered all K-12 schools to shut down, the plan for children to keep learning right now requires that kids either complete coursework online on their own or in special educational packets with their parents. However, one constituent pointed out that not all students have reliable access to the internet and not all parents have extra time to spend helping their child through an educational packet. 

Hecker pointed out how the “digital divide” represents an additional obstacle for students of lower socioeconomic status. 

“It’s estimated that one-third of Michigan students — so 500,000 K-12 students — do not have access to either a laptop or the kind of connectivity to get online and with those kids, we need to continue to do education packets, phone, et cetera,” Hecker said.

Hecker said in addition to lack of internet access, another challenge for many Michigan students wrought by coronavirus is the inability to get food from school lunches that many students rely on.

Herbert explained how some districts in other states have been able to use their school buses — some of which have WiFi capabilities onboard — as internet hotspots and said she hoped this might be a way to help more kids access their coursework during quarantine here in Michigan. 

Dingell said when Congress eventually takes up infrastructure spending, she will fight to make sure it includes funds for universal broadband.

Next, Jeff More, a constituent and the owner of Ashley’s Restaurant here in Ann Arbor, expressed frustration at having failed to receive an emergency grant for small businesses nine days after he applied, even though the grant was supposed to arrive within three days. 

“I called the SBA (Small Business Administration), was number 1,667 in line,” he said. “I waited the whole time and they had no answer when any funds were actually gonna start dispersing for those emergency grants, and I’m a little cynical. Are they going to states the President likes better?”

Dingell expressed sympathy at his frustration but said money for some loans started to be sent out the Friday before the town hall and money will arrive, even if later than desired. 

“The applications for them were so high that the system crashed. Banks worked all weekend,” Dingell said. “It became very clear over the weekend between everybody — Republicans and Democrats — that there needs to be more money put into the program.”

Other questions streamed in regarding the pandemic. One constituent expressed frustration that her daughter, who works for the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, was being made to wear the same mask for a week, and wondered if there was anything that could be done. Another constituent asked about what the pending legal challenge against the Affordable Care Act, brought by various states and endorsed by President Donald Trump, would mean for treatment of COVID-19 patients. 

Dingell expressed exasperation at the challenge to the law but assured the constituent that ACA-originated insurance coverage would not be taken away in the middle of this crisis as the Supreme Court, in an effort to social distance, is not hearing any cases at the moment.

Finally, Dingell ended the town hall with a piece of simple advice: “Stay home. Stay safe. Save lives.”


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