New: Whitmer to announce COVID-19 pay bump for teachers, support staff

By: - January 27, 2021 7:00 am

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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told the Michigan Advance that she will outline her plan in Wednesday’s State of the State address to give teachers and support staff grants due to the pandemic.

“I think we have to acknowledge that every person in the education ecosystem has been stressed to the limit, has continued to serve our kids,” Whitmer said in a video call interview on Tuesday.

Under the MI Classroom Heroes Grants, public and non-public teachers will receive up to $500. Eligible teachers primarily worked in bricks-and-mortar classrooms before April 2, 2020, and then taught after Whitmer closed in-person learning for the rest of the 2019-20 school year due to the pandemic. Under the same guidelines, support staff — including paraprofessionals, food service workers, custodians, bus drivers, school counselors, and literacy coaches — will receive up to $250. 

The program is already paid for. Funds were already appropriated in the Fiscal Year 2021 budget Whitmer signed in September. In December, Michigan school administrators submitted the names and addresses of eligible teachers and support staff to the Michigan Department of Treasury. Treasury will be mailing checks directly to educators in February.

The Advance talked to Whitmer more about the program, the state’s economic recovery and reflections on her address last year before COVID-19 was detected in Michigan.

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The following are excerpts from the interview.

Michigan Advance: Teachers in Michigan spend $628 out-of-pocket on school supplies alone, according to the Economic Policy Institute. So do you think this $500 grant is enough?

Whitmer: I think we need to do a lot more in education. This is one important way that we can acknowledge that they’ve made incredible sacrifices to support our kids. It has been difficult, to put it lightly. And so we wanted to acknowledge it and show some gratitude, but certainly if and when there’s an ability to do more like increasing teacher pay giving our kids more wraparound supports in our schools, that’s something that I’ve always been eager to do, and something that we’ll always work toward.

Michigan Advance: The Fiscal Year 2021 budget that was passed last September appropriates the funding for this program. So why are you choosing to announce it now?

Policy Director Emily Laidlaw: I think that it’s a new program and we had to figure out how to administer it. So we got the money out as quickly as possible. 

Michigan Advance: Why was it important to give support staff $250?

Whitmer: I think we have to acknowledge that every person in the education ecosystem has been stressed to the limit, has continued to serve our kids. And I showed up early on in the pandemic and helped pass out lunches, school lunches. And it was not just teachers who are usually in front of the classroom that were there. It was the support staff and parapros and bus drivers who were all pitching in to make sure that our kids who come to rely on meals at school were getting them at home. And I thought it was really important that we acknowledge they’re a critical component to our kids’ education, as well.

Michigan Advance: What are your top priorities that you’ll be addressing your State of the State address, broadly?

Whitmer: There are essentially three legs to our ability to have a robust economic rebound here. One is, of course, getting our population vaccinated. And so building up our administration so that we can have the capacity to increase vaccinations when vaccines are increased from the federal government. That’s something that is crucial. Getting to 70% of our population vaccinated for our 16 and up population as quickly as possible is essential to our having some normalcy again.

The second leg of the three-legged stool is of course, getting our kids back in school, and giving them the supports they need to be successful. We know that in a normal year, there is a lot of learning loss between the last day of school and the first day of school. And that loss is always more profound for kids in higher poverty and kids who are English language learners, kids with special needs. The usual learning loss is going to be dwarfed by the COVID recovery that we’re going to have to do. So that is an important, crucial component of the work that we need to do.

And then the third is, of course, getting our businesses, who are struggling through this moment, getting our unemployed help so that they can get through, and then re-engaging with gusto when it’s safe to do so.

And that is the three real major components of the speech, and components of our economic resurgence here in Michigan that we’ve got to do. And I’m hopeful that despite the vitriolic political rhetoric of the last 12 months, that these are areas that we can find some common ground on because our economy and our people are absolutely depending on it.

Michigan Advance: Last year you gave your State of the State address before COVID was detected in Michigan in March. I was wondering where your head was at before that speech vs. now, since obviously everything has changed.

Whitmer: Yeah, the whole world turned upside down fast. I did some end-of-the-year interviews, and people went through every month that happened in 2020. And it was just kind of hard to believe the State of the State and then the State of the Union response [Whitmer gave the Democratic response to Trump’s last address in February], and then the budget. There was just so much. And I thought those … first two months were some of the busiest that I’ve had. And yet the whole world turned upside down with COVID.

I think I was looking forward to in year two, really moving forward on the things that I said we were going to accomplish; the roads, announcing that plan. And we have moved forward on it. We haven’t paid a lot of attention to it, but it’s been happening. And that’s something that I will share during the State of the State. We’ve made great progress when it comes to criminal justice reform. We have a lot of accomplishments that haven’t maybe risen to the top of the consciousness, but indeed have happened. And I’ll share a little bit of that [Wednesday] night, as well.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 21-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 4,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 70 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.