In-person learning required for K-5 students under GOP plan passed by the House

By: - July 23, 2020 3:44 pm

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Wednesday’s House session ran late into the night while state representatives debated the Republicans’ “Return to Learn” legislation, which ultimately was approved, despite pushback from Democrats.

The legislation would require in-person learning for all students in kindergarten through the fifth grade. This would put a wrench in the plans for a few Michigan school districts, including Lansing Public Schools and Ann Arbor Public Schools, which have already announced plans to conduct all instruction online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Schools that decide to go completely virtual will be at risk of losing state funding if Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs the bills into law, which she is unlikely to do. 

After getting approval from the House Wednesday night, the package was sent to the Senate Committee on Education and Career Readiness. From there, the bills would go before the Senate for a vote.

The four-bill education package sets regulations around e-learning days, virtual courses, attendance, standardized testing and school funding, all while Michigan’s educators are still unsure of what is to come this fall.

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On Tuesday, during a House Education Committee meeting, a number of Democrats offered amendments to the bills, but none were approved by the Republican-majority committee.

House Bill 5910 allows for districts to determine e-learning days when in-person learning is deemed unsafe by the district’s superintendent. It also allows for educational services and school employees to be contracted through private organizations.

This bill passed the House with a 56-48 vote. 

House Bill 5911 expands the number of virtual classes a student is allowed to take, as long as the virtual classes are intended to remedy “an academic deficiency by testing below grade level” on the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP) or the student’s parent or guardian requests enrollment in virtual courses due to health, safety and welfare concerns.

This bill passed with a 57-47 vote. 

House Bill 5912 excludes e-learning days from the state’s attendance requirement that states a district must have at least 75% attendance on any instructional day in order to avoid prorated funding. 

This bill passed with a 57-47 vote.

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House Bill 5913 redefines attendance to include all student engagement in instruction, including online learning, rather than exclusively in-seat instruction. 

The bill also requires that districts administer at least one benchmark assessment to all kindergarten through eighth grade students within the first 30 days of the school year to measure proficiency in reading and math. A report identifying the number and percentage of students in each district who are significantly behind grade level would need to be provided to the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees on school aid and the House and Senate Fiscal agencies by Dec. 1. 

This bill passed with a 55-49 vote.

Whitmer released her own “Return to School Roadmap” in June, which included a range of reopening options, from completely virtual to all in-person instruction. Whitmer has said school buildings shouldn’t open in geographic regions where COVID-19 caseloads are too high. All schools in Michigan were shut down in March for the 2019-20 school year because of the pandemic.

Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown), a former teacher and a vocal opponent of the bill package, says the legislation “prioritizes profits over safety of our students and educators” and takes “advantage of this pandemic to make money off our kids.”

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Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth), another former teacher, was critical of the lack of teacher input during earlier discussions of the bill package. 

The state House and Senate Education committees met July 15 to discuss reopening plans for schools this fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic. A number of people were invited to testify that day, including school choice groups, superintendents and school psychologists, but no teachers were asked to speak.

“When developing this plan, I cannot understand why my colleagues on the other side of the aisle didn’t seek the input of those on the frontlines of our education system – our teachers. Teachers were not only left out of the conversation, they’re being left behind, and in doing so we’re leaving our students behind as well,” Koleszar said in a statement. 

He added that the plan will “syphon money away from traditional schools toward for-profit cyber schools until distance learning is the only option left. Solutions that provide access to distance learning should be symbiotic with our brick-and-mortar schools, not parasitic.”

House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) took to Twitter to show support for the legislation. 

Let’s treat teachers like the essential workers that they are and help them give every child the opportunity to return to school safely this fall,” he tweeted Wednesday.

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A number of Michigan education groups shared their disapproval of the legislation. 

Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart said the package comes “straight from the playbook of Betsy DeVos to make a profit off the education of our students.”

Herbart said the “most reprehensible” provision passed was in House Bill 5910, which allows for contracting out for teachers for virtual classes. 

“MEA strongly opposes these bills and calls on lawmakers to focus their energy on providing adequate funding for schools this fall, including lobbying Congress to pass the HEROES Act to help prevent pandemic-driven cuts for our students,” Herbart said in a statement. 

Tri-County Alliance for Public Education Executive Director Robert McCann said they have been working with state lawmakers to create a plan that provides “clarity, flexibility and funding.”

“Instead, only a month away from the start of the school year, we have a package of bills moving that would only put more obstacles in place and make every educator’s job that much harder,” McCann said. “If schools are unable to reopen their doors this fall, look no further than our Legislature as to why as they continue to ignore the need for the policies and resources necessary for that to happen. Our students deserve far better than this.”

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8.