Photo by Zackary Drucker, The Gender Spectrum Collection
Michigan schools are closed for now and standardized testing for the spring is waived. But beyond that, teachers, parents, school leaders and even state legislators don’t know exactly what the future holds for Michigan students during the COVID-19 outbreak.
On Friday morning, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said on WWJ-AM that it is “very unlikely” students will return to school, but she did say that high school seniors are still expected to graduate. But so far, there’s been no formal announcement — and there’s a fair amount of confusion about how the decision will get made.
Whitmer, legislators and state Superintendent Michael Rice have all given differing takes on who ultimately would get to make the call to shutter classroom learning for the school year.
All Michigan K-12 schools shut their doors on March 16. Whitmer signed Executive Order 2020-05 shutting them down through April 5 — which has now been extended until April 13, as the entire state is under a stay at home order to stop the spread of COVID-19, the disease from a new coronavirus.
As the Michigan Advance previously reported, this is the first time in history that such extended action for all schools has been taken, including the 1918 influenza epidemic and the 1978 blizzard.
This is now a measure that almost every state has taken, except for Iowa and Maine. Virginia, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Vermont, Alabama, New Mexico and Kansas already have announced they are closing for the remainder of the school year.
According to data from EdWeek, at least 124,000 public and private schools nationwide are closed or are scheduled to close, affecting at least 55.1 million students.
Will Michigan students return to school this year?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Michigan’s top leaders have been forced to make quick decisions, based on a rapidly changing situation. That’s been true for educational policy, as well.
But these decisions impact 1.4 million students across the state and their families, not to mention thousands of teachers, administrators and support staff.
At a press conference on March 20, Whitmer said the “plan and hope is that we’ll be in a position to get back into school.”
She added she was making plans for students to get an education outside of the classroom because she is “very aware of what the science is and what the experience has been elsewhere.”
When asked on Thursday about the status on graduation, Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said that the “situation has changed rapidly over the past weeks. We do not know what the future holds.”
But Whitmer’s perspective has changed, based on her comments on the radio Friday. On that day, the state announced more than 800 new COVID-19 cases and there have been almost 100 deaths.
Detroit Public School Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had written a letter Monday to Whitmer, Rice and the state Board of Education asking them to close schools for the rest of the school year.
“Family and employee health anxiety is too high to have students return to school prematurely. Opening too early will lead to numerous challenges, mainly extreme levels of student and employee absences that will undermine the expected learning experience in schools,” Vitti wrote.
The head of the state’s largest school district recommended the state close schools for the remainder of the school year and require enrichment through online learning, continue full state funding for the rest of the school year and promote and give credit to graduating seniors.
On Thursday, state Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Twp.) and state Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), both former teachers and ranking members on their respective Education committees, also called upon the governor to end the school year early.
“We are ready and willing to address this legislatively,” said Camilleri and Polehanki said in a joint statement. “But to act faster and provide clarity for our school districts, we urge the Governor to close schools for the rest of the year to protect our students, teachers, and families.”
As for graduation, Whitmer — whose oldest daughter is a high school senior — said in a March 20 news release, “I will be working in the coming days to ensure our seniors graduate and that no child is held back as a result of our ability to provide face-to-face instruction during the COVID-19 school closure.”
Responses to the sudden closures from school districts in Michigan have varied. But under such short notice, many teachers have been unsure of how to continue educating their students during the shutdown, especially since limited resources and access to the internet has made mandatory assignments almost impossible.
Craig Christensen, an eighth-grade English teacher at Whitehall Middle School in West Michigan, said he has been recommending readings and writing assignments for his students through educational software, like Google Classrooms and GoGuardian.
Through these websites, he is able to connect with students, assign readings and chat to make sure his students are doing all right.
Before the district closed for three weeks, Christensen was able to send students home with a hard copy of the book they were reading in class or email them a PDF version.
“These assignments aren’t for grades. We’re just keeping them busy and engaged, and making sure their brains don’t turn to mush,” he said.
But after hearing feedback from students throughout the first week of the closure, he is learning his students miss the in-class group discussions and the social interaction part of learning.
“We’re seeing it so clearly that these kids thrive on social interactions and academic interactions,” Christensen said. “Learning from each other is huge and I think that they’re seeing the value in class conversations where people raise their hands and wait for their turn to contribute or respond. I think that they take that stuff for granted, but now is a chance for them to see that having 25 to 30 kids in a classroom, well, there’s value in that.”
But even though Christensen’s students are voluntarily doing their homework online, it won’t count toward the district’s required instructional time, according to a Michigan Department of Education memorandum.
“I know that the MDE put out a statement today. I was dismayed to see that, frankly,” Whitmer said at a March 20 press conference. “We are going to work to make sure that kids are getting the equivalent of instruction as needed so that they can finish this year and have gotten the education that they’re supposed to get.”
State Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton), who chairs the Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee and is a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on K-12 and Michigan Department of Education, echoed Whitmer’s response to the MDE’s decision.
“Like many parents and students throughout Livingston and Washtenaw counties, as well as our governor, I was shocked and dismayed by the announcement from state education officials that students receiving online instruction because of the coronavirus pandemic will not be able to count it toward official instruction time,” Theis said in a statement Saturday.
“As leaders, the state Department of Education should be doing everything it can to facilitate that continued learning — not discourage it.”
State Rep. Mari Manoogian (D-Birmingham) said that the West Bloomfield School District created a virtual learning program, and provided Chromebooks and wifi hotspots to students in need.
In a letter to the MDE, Manoogian said she was “disappointed” by the department’s decision, calling it “confusing and contradictory,” especially for schools who have made online learning possible for all students.
Rice said in a statement last week that it’s up to the Legislature to “change state law to permit days out of school for this public health emergency to be counted as instructional days.”
“According to state law governing education delivered in traditional public schools, we can’t count instructional time if we can’t count students,” Rice said.
Manoogian disagrees with Rice about who is able to make the decision on instructional time.
“It is well within MDE’s authority — under MCL 388.1701 — to grant such waivers, especially when considering the mandated closures of schools,” she said.
Rice says the school shutdown could be extended past the established closure period, but says it is beyond the department’s jurisdiction to make the decision.
Whose call is it, anyway?
And that gets to the larger issue: Whose call is it to make if Michigan students shouldn’t return to the classroom this year? Since it’s uncharted territory, there are different answers, depending on who you ask.
According to House GOP spokesperson Gideon D’Assandro, “The Legislature believes [Whitmer] can do it through executive action.”
But at a Thursday morning press conference, the governor said that she “cannot unilaterally address the issue around the education of our kids” through her executive powers.
Both Whitmer and D’Assandro said she is working with the Legislature on a plan to best handle the situation and meet the needs of the students. The governor also said she has also been in conversation with the MDE, superintendents and teachers to come up with solutions.
And meanwhile, an MDE spokesperson said the department is working with the Whitmer administration to come up with a long term solution and address challenges of equity and access.
If the likely decision to shut down schools for the remainder of the school year comes, parents and students will want to know how instruction will continue and that seniors can get their diplomas. Administrators will want confirmation that online classes will count toward state requirements.
Those are all thorny policy questions that will probably involve actions from the governor, Legislature and MDE. In the meantime, thousands of anxious Michigan families await the answers.
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