Study: Pandemic led to absenteeism, challenges in Michigan’s lowest-performing schools

Students struggled with food insecurity, illness, housing access and more

By: - September 30, 2021 3:11 pm

Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Getty Images

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, only about 12% of educators in some of Michigan’s lowest-performing schools believed that their students were on track academically last school year, according to a new study. 

Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC) found that student absenteeism was pervasive and learning was greatly affected in Partnership school districts during the 2020-21 school year. 

Under the former Gov. Rick Snyder administration, the state in 2017 formed the Michigan Partnership Model to improve the state’s lowest-performing public and charter schools and keep them from closing. Partnership districts and charter organizations craft three-year Partnership agreements that highlight districts’ specific needs and establish strategies to address those needs and measurable achievement goals. 

Partnerships schools and districts:

  • American International Academy 
  • Baldwin Community Schools 
  • Battle Creek Public Schools 
  • Bridgeport-Spaulding Community School District 
  • David Ellis Academy 
  • Detroit Leadership Academy 
  • Detroit Public Safety Academy 
  • Detroit Public Schools Community District 
  • Ecorse Public Schools 
  • Genesee STEM Academy 
  • Grand Rapids Public Schools 
  • Great Lakes Academy 
  • Insight School of Michigan 
  • Joy Preparatory Academy 
  • Macomb Montessori Academy 
  • Mildred C. Wells Academy 
  • Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System 
  • Oakland County Academy of Media and Technology 
  • River Rouge School District 
  • Saginaw Preparatory Academy 
  • School District of the City of Flint 
  • School District of the City of Muskegon 
  • School District of the City of Pontiac 
  • School District of the City of Saginaw 
  • University Preparatory Art and Design 
  • William C. Abney Academy

There are two cohorts of schools and districts in the Partnership program. Cohort one started in 2017 and cohort two started in 2018. 

These schools have historically struggled, but the ongoing pandemic has worsened the situation and the improvement they have made since being in the Partnership program has decreased. 

A majority of Partnership schools and districts are in majority-minority communities, which have been disproportionately affected during the pandemic with greater COVID-19 spread and higher death rates. 

Approximately one-third of Michigan’s Black students and more than 18% of Hispanic students were enrolled in Partnership districts in the 2018-19 school year, according to EPIC.

“All of the data and evidence that has been accumulating within Michigan and across the country show how greatly the pandemic has exacerbated already-existing inequities in the public systems that serve our students,” said Katharine Strunk, director of EPIC, and the Clifford Erickson Distinguished Professor of Education Policy at MSU’s College of Education. 

“Our latest report hammers in that point: Kids in Michigan’s lowest-performing schools and districts live in communities that were hit harder by COVID and by the resulting economic and health consequences of the pandemic. How could this not affect their opportunities to learn?”

Partnership district teachers who participated in the EPIC survey reported that they believe their students struggled with access to health care and housing, economic instability, food insecurity and illness during the pandemic. 

In August 2020, when schools were making the decision to offer in-person learning or do another year of remote learning, 31% of Partnership districts planned to be fully remote. While the decisions districts made were based on health concerns and safety risks, virtual learning created unique challenges for students in Partnership districts. 

Detroit Public Schools Community District Priest Elementary-Middle School on Sept. 7, 2021 | Ken Coleman

Underfunded and low-performing schools often struggled with virtual learning, due to resource and capacity constraints. 

Partnership schools already had problems with student absenteeism, which was exacerbated with online learning. Educators reported that up to about half of their students were absent each day in responding to the survey in February and early March 2021.

High school graduation rates, which were ticking up in the first two years of the Partnership program, dropped back down in the 2019-20 school year.

For the first cohort of Partnership schools, which finished their third year of the program this spring, on-time graduation rates dropped to 64% in the 2018-19 school year from 67% the year prior. 

“It is disappointing that graduation rates in cohort one districts decreased after showing increases during the first two years of their Partnership agreements. This decrease could be linked to health care, housing instability and student attendance issues that faced Partnership districts because of the pandemic,” State Superintendent Michael Rice said in an open letter in response to the report on the Partnership program. 

Additionally, kindergarten enrollment declined sharply in Partnership schools in the 2020-21 school year —  plummeting by 38% and 27% in cohort one and two Partnership schools, respectively.

“One thing that our results make clear is the dedication of the educators working in Michigan’s Partnership schools and districts,” Strunk said. “Teachers and school and district leaders were on the front lines of the pandemic and our results suggest that they are working hard to support their students.”

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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.