Opinion | Whitmer’s school reopening plan puts student, teacher safety first

Governor Whitmer’s MI Safe Schools Roadmap is a smart framework that will help districts across the state protect students and the more than 200,000 educators who have dedicated their lives to providing hope and opportunity for our children.

David Hecker is president of the American Federation of Teachers union in Michigan

When considering how to safely bring students and school staff back into school buildings, it is critical to acknowledge that the coronavirus is very much still present in our state. Over the past month, I was proud to serve on the governor’s Return to School Advisory Council with more than 20 other educators, parents, students, public health experts and community leaders to provide guidance and advice in the development of a framework for how our state should approach the challenge of safely providing high quality education during this public health crisis.

As the president of AFT Michigan, I have the privilege of representing our members who work in public schools: teachers, paraprofessionals, and school support staff, including secretaries, bus drivers, food service workers, custodians and so many more from across the state of Michigan. Our members recognize how important it is for students to learn in-person, but are also acutely aware of the challenges to providing safe and nurturing learning environments during a pandemic.

Representing the collective efforts and experience of educators, administrators, elected officials, parents, students, and public health experts from across the state, the Roadmap puts safety first and is grounded in the core principal of providing equitable learning access for every child. The recommended safety protocols will be tied together with the local MI Safe Start Phase to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our schools and our communities.

Every school district must develop three plans:  A Phase 3 plan that is fully remote, a Phase 4 plan with very strict and required protocols, and a Phase 5 plan with more relaxed protocols and additional local flexibility. These plans must be developed with community and educator voices, and through collective bargaining where applicable. The Roadmap provides recommendations addressing mental and social-emotional health, instruction, special education, and operations within each phase of the MI Safe Start Plan. The Roadmap will allow for flexibility between school districts when determining the best methods to ensure the health and safety of our students and educators. 

Local education leaders will then determine how best to facilitate learning, including adapting to accommodate special circumstances and special education services, based on the parameters established by Gov. Whitmer and local needs.

This includes the question on everyone’s mind: how will our schools actually look when reopening? Will schools open for in-person, hybrid, or remote instruction? This plan will have that question be resolved locally, and it will be largely dependent on how effective we are at slowing the spread of the disease by adhering to safety guidelines such as social distancing and wearing masks.

We know educators and parents will also have questions about the implementation and enforcement of policies set forth in this Roadmap. While the Advisory Council will continue its work to address implementation, these issues are best addressed by districts in collaboration with community and educators, prioritizing safety and learning.

It will also be necessary to address the disproportionate threat of COVID-19 among communities of color and those who are economically disadvantaged. Students in these groups often have disparities in access to devices and high-speed internet and risk falling behind.

To address the cost of implementing these strategies, Gov. Whitmer will allocate $256 million in funding to districts across Michigan. This support is much needed, and is a first step in addressing the impact of COVID-19 on our schools. We need Congress to pass additional financial assistance for our state, so we can ensure a great education for our kids. 

Implementing and enforcing these guidelines to provide safe and equitable instruction in the coming months requires full partnership of communities, administrators, teachers, staff, parents, and students. We stand ready to collaborate with school districts to ensure public school students are able to learn as safely as possible. 

Our members remain confident in Gov.Whitmer’s leadership during this on-going crisis. We know she is making every decision informed by data and science, and with a commitment to the values of strong public education for every student, protection and dignity for every worker, and empowering every family to thrive.

With this Roadmap, educators, community members, parents, and students will build from a strong foundation as we work together to ensure that our schools and communities are prepared for returning to the classroom as safely as possible this fall.

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