Unsafe season for Michigan Capitol tour service


LANSING, Michigan (AP) – When a child gazes at the inner dome of the Michigan State Capitol’s rotunda into the Oculus, which reveals an eternal starry sky, Capitol Education Director Matt VanAcker knows he can expect at least one good “wow” in the whole chamber.

Today there are fewer wows due to the events of the past year and a half that left downtown empty and the Capitol’s signature tour services unsure of how many students to expect. Online tours and smaller personal groups have been standard since the beginning of last summer. Personal tours, especially of schools, fluctuated along with COVID-19 case numbers.

“It’s quite a drop from the pre-COVID numbers,” said Jerry Benson, an educator who has worked at the Capitol for 12 years. “It is sad.”

While there were few visits during the summer months when the service wasn’t on tour at all, the party size has shrunk to five or six people at a time, Benson estimates.

“Everyone is talking about the new normal,” said VanAcker. “I’m not sure what this will be for us.”

210 school classes are currently scheduled for Capitol tours this fall, reports the Lansing State Journal.

Whether Capitol-Tourservice regains its old attendance rates depends on how schools deal with COVID-19. Field trips make up the bulk of Capitol tour groups, usually as part of the 3rd or 4th grade curriculum on the history and government of the state. Over the past year, the Capitol’s personal touring ability has increased and decreased as school COVID-19 case numbers fluctuated.

With districts returning to face-to-face learning this fall, most schools are focusing more on classroom safety than field trips, VanAcker said. Meanwhile, every district in Ingham County has reported positive cases of COVID-19 among students or staff, resulting in a statewide requirement for masking in school buildings.

“They don’t really think about what kind of excursions they are going to do right now,” said VanAcker.

To make up for the lost traffic, VanAcker and his colleagues began running virtual Capitol tours on Zoom last year, partially supported by building-wide WiFi, which lawmakers insisted on not wanting to see a service outage. More than a quarter of the nearly 1,300 tours of the Capitol since May 2020 have been conducted through Zoom.

One advantage of the digital tours is the capacity. While groups are broken up into smaller groups on a typical personal school tour, a zoom tour can accommodate up to 150 students at a time.

These numbers led the VanAcker team to continue offering the Zoom tours even if vaccines and cautious comfort bring back personal groups.

The virtual tours are also helpful for schools that cannot access Lansing due to distance or small excursion budgets. Capitol Tours Service recently reached 205 of Michigan’s more remote boroughs, offering zoom tours for students who would otherwise only learn about the legislature in their classrooms.

But digital tours can only go so far. The personal tours of the Capitol surround visitors with physical memories of the age and history of the building in ways that are difficult to reproduce online: the floor tiles of 475 million year old fossils in Vermont limestone, the portraits of former governors, the Opportunity to lie on the floor of the rotunda and look up.

VanAcker is happy that digital access means more people can see the Capitol, but fears that an entire generation of students may never get the full in-person experience. He remembered his own first visit to the Capitol when he was 4 years old when he was frozen by the bloodstained Civil War flags he was later to help with.

The view of the dome from the floor of the rotunda is popular with tourists, VanAcker said.

He hopes the COVID-19 case numbers stay manageable this school year so that the calls he fears – teachers canceling visits – don’t come.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said. “Carefully.”


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