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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.”