Whitmer, GOP reach Michigan school restart deal over protests from educators

The last-minute agreement on reopening, which comes just weeks away from most school restart dates, focuses primarily on administration rather than academics.   (Shutterstock)

LANSING — Michigan schools can restart this fall with online-only, in-person or blended instruction but will be required to revisit that decision monthly and allow for parental feedback in public meetings under a new bipartisan deal between Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and legislative leaders.

The deal, announced late Friday, gives "parents the opportunity to voice their concerns and keep the community informed of needed adaptations," according to a legislative outline obtained by Bridge. 

School districts that choose virtual instruction will be required to document at least two interactions per week between individual students and teachers to ensure meaningful two-way communication during remote learning, according to sources familiar with the plan. 

The last-minute agreement, which comes just weeks away from most school restart dates, focuses primarily on administration rather than academics and leaves most instructional choices to local districts that Whitmer already required to develop pandemic plans.

Districts are already required to implement public safety measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus, including mandatory masks for all students in grades 6-12 in most parts of the state, under a separate June 30 executive order.

The governor and legislative leaders announced the restart deal Friday night but did not provide any details or copies of the legislation, which the Senate is expected to vote on Saturday morning in a rare weekend session. 

The deal “will give students, parents, educators, and support staff much needed support, flexibility, and certainty as we approach the new school year,” Whitmer, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, House Speaker Lee Chatfield and House Minority Leader Christine Greig said in a joint statement. 

“They deserve peace of mind about what the next few months will hold in store, and this legislation will provide it." 

While Whitmer and GOP leaders hailed the new deal, groups representing public school administrators and superintendents asked the Senate to delay action on the legislation until next week so they can review it with educators who will have to implement it. 

Bob McCann, executive director of the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, called it a “backroom deal” that is “beyond disappointing,” arguing the plan will create “unnecessary new requirements” for educators rather the budget certainly they need heading into an uncertain year. 

“Lansing had months to get this right and somehow found a way to still get every part of it wrong and, unfortunately, it's our students who will see the consequences of that,” said McCann, whose group represents superintendents in metro Detroit.

A proposal approved last month by the Republican-led House would have required an in-person option for K-5 students, and while some districts already plan to do so, that is only a recommendation in the final plan. 

“If districts determine that it is safe to offer in-person learning, districts are encouraged, but not required, to prioritize in-person instruction to K-5 pupils when possible,” Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township, said in a statement.

Many school districts have already made the decision to begin the school year with online-only instruction, including Grand Rapids, Bloomfield Hills and Lansing, because of ongoing public health fears associated with the coronavirus pandemic.

The new plan will encourage local school districts to revisit those instructional and student safety plans on a routine basis. 

Whitmer already ordered each district to create pandemic restart plans and submit them to the state by the end of this week. Under the pending legislation, school boards must recertify those local plans each month in public meetings, beginning in October, according to officials with knowledge of the plans.

The state is seeking federal waivers to skip standardized tests this year, but the deal between Whitmer and GOP leaders will still require districts to give “benchmark assessments” in the fall and spring to evaluate where students are at academically. Schools can choose from a set of pre-approved tests or request state permission to use an alternative. 

It’s not immediately clear how the Michigan Department of Education will use that student test data, or how districts that begin  the year with online-only classes will be expected to conduct assessments traditionally given in-person. The legislation has not yet been introduced.

The deal between Whitmer and the Legislature will temporarily waive a requirement that districts provide students with at least 1,098 hours of instruction each school year, which administrators feared would be difficult to track in a virtual setting. Instead, schools would be required to document at least two weekly interactions between a teacher and each individual student. 

"Parameters have been set to ensure schools and teachers interface enough with students to ensure they receive the quality education they would in a traditional classroom," according to the legislative outline. "Those who do not meet those parameters will not be eligible for state funding."

Education officials expect many parents will explore transfer options this fall depending on whether their district chooses to offer in-person, online or blended instruction. 

The plan negotiated by Whitmer and GOP legislators seeks to minimize the budgetary impact of that "churn" by creating a new student count formula for the 2020-21 school year.

Michigan gives a set amount of funding to schools for each student they educate. But for this year only, the funding will be based on a blend of last year’s pupil count (weighted at 75 percent) and a new fall pupil count (weighted at 25 percent).

That could help schools keep their lights on, literally and figuratively, if a significant number of students transfer to another district this year. But it also means that districts won't be fully rewarded for successful implementation of an instruction and safety model that parents prefer.  

As of late Friday, school administration advocates were urging the Legislature to wait until next week to act rather than take up the plan in the Senate on Saturday morning. 

"While it is our goal to see a resolution that provides more certainty to districts, this process is rushed and not inclusive," leading education groups said Friday in a joint letter to lawmakers.

Time is short, but it’s important to get the legislation right and make sure there are no “unintended consequences,” said Peter Spadafore of the Michigan Association of Superintendent & Administrators. 

“There are some parts of this plan we could probably live with, but what causes us consternation is that the details have not yet been shared in bill form.”

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Fri, 08/14/2020 - 11:47pm

While the federal government is critized for leaving decisions to the states, it is ok for the states to leave desisions to the school districts?

Sat, 08/15/2020 - 7:06am

Not much of a plan:
1) Evaluate learning approach every month: districts are already doing it weekly.
2) Receive parent input at public meetings: every school board meeting already has an 'open to public' agenda line.
3) Log two teacher-student interactions a week: Schools are already taking attendance. They need to to secure per pupil funding.
4) 6-12 wear masks: This was already in Whitmer's Road Map to Reopening Schools.

Funding and testing were the big issues that needed to be addressed. How can districts plan a school year without a budget?

Saving GOP Face
Sat, 08/15/2020 - 9:03am

So in other words, Whitmer cleaned their GOP clocks, AGAIN. No mask mandates? LOL First positive case in a school with in-person classes and all the children will be mandated to wear a mask or close. You can't take away the money after it has been granted. LOL I honestly don't see any compromise from what was on the table a month ago. Teachers get hazard pay. Parents in sane districts get to choose online learning. All is good. Whitmer rules! So glad she isn't playing second fiddle to Biden, that she is NUMBER ONE, in charge in Michigan where we NEED her MOST. Sorry for the frail GOP egos of Shirkey and Chatfield. Maybe they really wanted to head back to their lake homes this Saturday and continue their undeserved longterm vacations. "Rare" Saturday legislative meeting! Give me a break! How long did it take to rubberstamp Whitmer's plan? It's now 9AM on Saturday! LOL Whitmer owns you, boys! Go home with your tails between your legs and tell your lame constituents how hard you worked! Well, at least you got your thieving insurance reform; my rates are as high as ever. What have you done in the last year?????? Not a fan.

Sun, 08/16/2020 - 10:21pm

No, they reached a BIPARTISAN agreement which means no one is totally satisfied but everyone got something. The local school districts SHOULD be the ones to decide what they want to do based on the environment in their community and parental wishes. Frankly, the data from other countries already show that children are at little risk from CV and there have been few if any cases of them spreading it to adults. Whitmer is a scaremonger regarding CV as the average age of death in Michigan from CV is in the 70's and among those with preexisting conditions; younger adults rarely have serious cases that require hospitalizations and among children its almost zero (14 children's deaths attributed to CV in the entire US). If Whitmer is so wonderful why is she STILL sending CV positive people into nursing homes where the most susceptible people are? Half of Michigan deaths are from nursing homes (and probably more), and you still praise her??? The best thing would be for her to take her boot off our necks and let us manage our own health like we do every flu season and in every other epidemic this country has had.

Sat, 08/15/2020 - 9:21am

Virtual learning won't work. Childcare will be a huge hurdle for our country to solve. You won't and can't get kids to spend hours learning on a computer. How do we handle kids who move into a district mid Semester. How do we prove proper placement. From other schools we ask for a transcript. This is a real challenge for everyone. Peace Love to hear from you. R.l.

middle of the mit
Sun, 08/16/2020 - 8:38pm

Hello R.L.

I agree that teaching and childcare will be a problem for the near term future. Hopefully this won't be a long term event. Who knows though.

The thing I can't understand is why everyone thinks that kids behind screens can't learn. What do they do all day any way? How many of them are glued to their phones or pads? How do they learn to play games on the screens, but they can't learn algebra? They know how to do all sorts of things with phones and pads, but learning is the one thing they can't grasp how to do with a screen?

How do they learn to play games they have never played?

I am also wondering how European children survived and thrived after WWI,or II, while growing up in an actual war zone, not a quarantine zone.

Why can't American children live and thrive after a year or so of internet or remote learning, when children in other nations seem to live through worse?

If this is posted, I look forward to the conversation.

No red herring
Mon, 08/17/2020 - 9:46am

So how did parents handle childcare all summer? Kids don't have to sit and spend hours on the computer, like they have to stay at school six hours straight. They can take breaks, more so than when in class. There is a lot more flexibility at home. Now more than ever, parents and children need flexibility. Students still cover the same material, so placement isn't an issue.

George Hagenauer
Sat, 08/15/2020 - 9:50am

A major problem with the whole discussion is it looks at schools as an environment that is separate from the rest of the community when initial research in other countries and common sense suggest that the two are one and interactive. It looks like successful school avoidance of the virus depends a lot on how much virus is in the community overall and how much testing is done overall. School strategy relates to the conditions of the virus in the rest of the community and having more children in school as opposed to online usually best occurs when testing is showing a results of less than 1% infection rates shown by tests in the general population. From a common sense perspective, children can have mild cases or be asymptomatic but also spread the virus. What that means is an outbreak at the school can totally disrupt the business community as parents get sick and can't work. So what is at stake here is not just what happens to teachers and students but the whole community. The legislature needs to be looking at it in this way. Also there is an effective cheap paper test coming on line which will enable better management of the virus. But even at $1 or $2 a test testing a school district of say 1000 individuals which is a small district would be $1000 a day or $1000 per week. And a major problem is not just asymptomatic can transmit the virus but the fact that transmission occurs before symptoms so often other methods of identifying the virus - identify it after the potential of infecting other people is possible. School districts will be facing significant costs to make reopening work.

Pro Life Lies
Mon, 08/17/2020 - 10:18am

173,143+ covid-19 deaths in America, probably the president's own brother, Robert, while the president decided to go golfing. Outrageous! Mr President, please resign. Let Pence face Biden. You gave it your best, but you just aren't up for the job! Go play golf in peace. Become a FOX News contributor. Start a new reality TV show, anything, just go!