LANSING — It’s not uncommon to hear laughter in the Capitol these days — and not from state legislators.
For the first time in years, school groups are returning in significant numbers to tour the building, their voices long absent as COVID-19 took hold in Michigan.
With cases down and schools back in-person, field trips are resuming at many of mid-Michigan’s popular destinations, including Potter Park Zoo, Impression 5 Science Center, the Michigan History Museum and 4th-grade staple the Capitol.
“We’re literally going gangbusters right now,” said Michigan Capitol Education Director Matt VanAcker.
The Capitol schedule is currently filled with classes coming to visit the historic building, with tours running nearly every day, VanAcker said.
“We’ve missed the heck out of the kids during the brunt of COVID,” he said. “Seeing the building in person is an experience not to be missed.”
Even at the height of the pandemic, the Capitol welcomed small tours of 10 or fewer people and offered virtual tours. But visitor numbers were significantly low, with many schools operating remotely.
Though the number of students visiting the Capitol has rebounded, it’s still only about 60% of pre-pandemic levels, VanAcker said. Before the pandemic, about 115,000 people annually visited the Capitol for the one-hour tours, with students making up the majority.
“It feeds our souls to see kids interact with this building as historians here and as educators,” VanAcker said. “To have kids interact with us and interact with the building and see the legislature in session, it’s so affirming.”
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Field trip firsts
Many students will go on their first field trip ever this spring — and not just kindergartners.
“We had a group of second graders here (Thursday) and they had never been on a field trip before,” said Jennifer Horvatin, learning program coordinator at Potter Park Zoo. “It’s been great having them back and out on the grounds.”
Most children who started kindergarten in fall 2019 had just a half-year of regular schooling before online learning in the first grade.
Potter Park Zoo closed for just three months at the onset of the pandemic, but field trips didn’t return right away.
A few class trips came through last fall and winter, but student visitor numbers were nowhere near the 10 groups a day who used to visit the zoo.
That’s changing as spring gets underway. In recent weeks, Horvatin has welcomed multiple groups a day, including some larger groups with hundreds of students. The current reservation calendar suggests there could be days coming up where the zoo sees 1,000 to 1,500 people, including students and other visitors.
Bus driver shortage limits field trips
Field trip traffic also has begun picking up at Impression 5 Science Center and the Michigan History Museum.
Like the Capitol, the number of students visiting Impression 5 is about half of what it was pre-pandemic, according to Executive Director Erik Larson. In 2019, the center welcomed 170,000 visitors, including about 25,000 from school groups.
But since February, field trip traffic has picked up.
“It feels so great to have the science center active again, not only with field trips and schools but visiting families,” Larson said. “Two weeks ago, during spring break, we had 6,000 visitors. That’s big for us.”
The Michigan History Museum reopened to field trips after Labor Day last fall and mandated masks until six weeks ago, said director Tobi Voigt. The museum is still capping capacity for air circulation purposes, but sees 250 to 300 students a day. Another 400 were expected to come through on Friday alone.
“We’re really excited to see the kids come back,” Voigt said. “The place is better with the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ and excitement that they have.”
Meanwhile, things are about to return to normal at the Ebersole Environmental Education Center, perhaps Lansing School District’s most popular field trip destination.
Starting this week, groups have been cleared to return for overnight trips at the 158-acre environmental campus, supplementing the day trips students have been going on since last fall. It would have been busier going back to last fall, had a bus driver shortage not severely limited field trips to the site, said Ebersole director Ben Botwinski.
Ebersole staff provided virtual programming for Lansing School District students through the pandemic, but they missed out on the full experience that the massive campus offers, he said.
“It’s re-energizing,” Botwinski said. “The kids have been incredibly receptive for the opportunity to come back. Just this week, we had kids from Pattengill (Biotechnical Magnet School) for a day trip and they were begging to stay.”
Contact Mark Johnson at (517) 377-1026 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ByMarkJohnson.