Gov. Whitmer, GOP near deal on Michigan school reopenings amid pandemic

teacher in classroom

Many school districts have already made the decision to begin the school year with online-only instruction, including Grand Rapids Public Schools and the Lansing School District, because of ongoing public health fears associated with the coronavirus pandemic.  (Shutterstock)

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

LANSING — Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican-led Legislature are negotiating a plan that would allow Michigan school districts to choose to offer in-person, remote or hybrid instruction this fall.

Whitmer and GOP leaders are still ironing out details that could be announced as soon as Friday, but multiple sources familiar with the talks tell Bridge the package is expected to eliminate a House-approved requirement that districts at least offer in-person classes to K-5 students. 

The governor would have almost certainly vetoed legislation with that requirement, but removing it could make it difficult for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey of Clarklake and House Speaker Lee Chatfield of Levering to sell the pending deal to their members. 

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. 

“I hope that schools will offer K-5 in-person instruction, but I don’t believe it’s going to be required,” said state Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township, who chairs the House Education Committee and had pushed for the requirement. “I think most educators realize that that’s the best option for small students, especially our K-5 community.” 

Most public education advocacy groups oppose making in-person classes mandatory, arguing districts should have the autonomy to decide their own reopening strategy based on local circumstances. 

Removing the in-person requirement “would be a step in the right direction,” said Bob McCann, executive director of the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, which represents superintendents across metro Detroit.

“It’s kind of laughable, frankly, that we’re at this point — only two weeks out [from restart at many districts] and still debating some of the most fundamental things that schools had asked for months ago.”

With restart dates fast approaching, Whitmer and GOP leaders are working to finalize the legislation ahead of a rare Saturday session scheduled in the state Senate. If approved there, the House would likely vote on the plan in a rare Monday session. 

The Senate had planned action two weeks ago, but Shirkey canceled sessions after Sen. Tom Barrett contracted COVID-19, and Chatfield followed suit in the House. 

School groups have asked for certainty over how the state will count students this fall, a major decision because the state pays for local classroom instruction based on the number of pupils per district. 

Sources familiar with the discussions say the final deal is likely to include a “blended” formula of some kind for this year’s student count, which could minimize major funding shifts in what is expected to be an unusual year. It’s not yet clear what that blend will look like. 

The Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators has urged policymakers to either use last year’s student count or a new one this year, whichever is higher, guaranteeing stable or increased funding despite an anticipated $1.1 billion school funding shortfall.

“We recognize that school districts need some certainty and planning, but also that, whatever happens this year, it’s going to be more expensive than last year to offer instruction, whether it be because we have to buy technology or transportation for packets or PPE and plexiglass,” said Peter Spadafore, deputy executive director for external relations. 

“This is going to be a year that requires more resources in an already underfunded education system.”

Michigan Superintendent Michael Rice is also urging lawmakers to give schools flexibility on daily attendance and hourly instruction requirements, which could be more difficult to track if students are learning remotely. Without legislation, Rice said this week he is “prepared to use my limited authority” to try to ease those requirements on his own.

Another sticking point in negotiations has been if and how to assess student performance given school closures in the spring and the variety of reopening plans districts are expected to pursue.

The state is seeking a federal waiver to skip standardized assessments, but schools will likely be required to still give students some form of traditional benchmark assessments to determine their learning levels,  Hornberger said. 

At issue is what assessments schools can use and how the data will be analyzed. House legislation approved last month would have required districts to report the data to the Michigan Department of Education, the House and the Senate.

“Reporting to the state just makes education people really leery of how the data is going to be used,” Hornberger acknowledged. “No one can blame any educator or anyone else for learning loss during these past few months. No one knew this was coming.”

Senate Education Chair Lana Theis, R-Brighton, said she is wary of dropping the requirement for an in-person instruction option given a new report by the Office of Auditor General that cited the state for failing to properly oversee virtual learning programs. 

“It’s imperative that public education be about teaching students, primarily, and we need to make sure we can do it safely,” Theis said. “I think there are a bunch of options out there that we need to consider.”

While Whitmer, Shirkey and Chatfield will have final say on the plan, other lawmakers continue to push their own ideas. 

Theis wants to give parents the option of grouping together to create their own “learning pods” at a local public space — and have the local school district provide a teacher, curriculum and materials. But with most schools set to start around Labor Day, time is short. 

“It might not be that it happens the same day as schools would traditionally start, but to say ‘No, it’s too hard,’ that’s not an answer,” Theis said. “We have to provide options to our families.”

Hornberger, for her part, was hoping to at least require teachers to report to their classrooms even if they were teaching remotely. That would ensure teachers are “readily available” if parents need support during the day, she said. 

But that idea and others could be left on the cutting room floor. 

“It’s not going to be mandatory as far as I know,” Hornberger said, noting Whitmer and GOP leaders are still working out final details.

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Oh please
Thu, 08/13/2020 - 8:42pm

They will rubber-stamp what Whitmer is already doing whereby she will let them save face for their doing nothing.

Moral of Story
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 4:46am

GOP is against giving local government control. I hope any children forced to go to school in-person gets the Shirkey treatment when one child tests positive. Everything is shutdown for two weeks. Can you imagine if there were no emergency law? How would our state have fared in this crisis with all these clowns pretending to make important decisions worried about pleasing their wacko partisan donors, I mean, "constituents", like the DeVos family?

Kevin Grand
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 6:14am

And yet, there is still no mention of what Michigan parents have to say about all of this?

Matt G
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 12:04pm


Based on what you post here regularly, I wouldn't trust you with making decisions about a child's welfare.

Fri, 08/14/2020 - 5:08pm

The parent speak through their local school districts. Parents do not want Trump or the GOP legislature dictating what they must do.

Kids First
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 8:45am

Make teachers teach from their classrooms or no pay. They will rush back to the schools. Most people prefer to be paid to sit home. No way sitting in front of a screen all day is good for any child. For some students school is there "safe" place. Teachers are the first line to protect at risk students.

Fri, 08/14/2020 - 12:08pm

"Rush back to the classroom"? I already resigned because my district chose not to start virtually.

You have no idea what you're talking about. Districts are in a mad scramble to find qualified people in what is already a profession with staff
and substitute shortages.

But you know, I'm sure you're an education expert with loads of experience! Oh wait no, you're just some selfish jerk on the internet that wants to force teachers to become health care workers on top of already being first responders, counselors, social workers, etc.

No thanks
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 5:11pm

Blah blah blah, students are also the first line to infect teachers and the larger community. Why force teachers into a building? They have kids at home too. They can work at home, if the schooling is online. Maybe there could be occasional times when they might have to be in a classroom, but why the caveman attitude?

Fri, 08/14/2020 - 9:49am

"Parents organizing learning pods in a public space". How about classrooms that are sitting empty. They are are already set up for learning.
How about a blend of in person and virtual learning? A classroom of 28 second grade students split into four groups: A,B,C,D. Group A attends school mornings Monday and Wednesday, Group B attends afternoons. Group C attends mornings Tuesday and Thursday, Group D attends afternoons. When all students are not in the classroom, they engage in virtual learning. Seven students at a time in that classroom is social distancing and it gives the teacher the opportunity to check on student learning. If some of the parents choose to home school the numbers attending are even less. It does not need to be all or nothing.

Fri, 08/14/2020 - 11:44am

Wow! Imagine that, a suggestion that actually makes sense. All these children need the stimulus and challenge of live interaction other students. You might even shuffle the deck each week and have different students within each group.
Excellent idea...too bad none of our legislators, administrators, or teachers came up with it.

Matt G
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 12:12pm

It's almost like you're not a teacher or administrator and you haven't attended a single school board meeting since the pandemic began.

It's also almost like you're not an epidemiologist or a medical professional, otherwise you'd realize that the entire point of these measures would be to slow or stop the spread of COVID-19, and these suggestions do the opposite.

But y'know you people will say anything to get what you want.

Fri, 08/14/2020 - 5:13pm

Great idea, until you realize the whole point is to not use the schools and instead to socially distance. Then you realize those are horrible ideas.

George Hagenauer
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 11:55am

First there is the concept from the public that online learning is easier so lets require teachers to spend time getting to and from school and take a chance on losing them for 2 weeks or more due to exposure to the virus. From people I know who have taught on line it takes a lot more effort to do it and often the follow up is a lot more individual instruction. And thanks to the legislative debacle there are high school teachers who today do not know what courses they are teaching in the fall. part time attendance in elementary school sounds great but then sets up an even crazier out of school child care situation- not a lot of child care providers want kids for 2 days a week. Setting up a system where parents can choose (yes a normal Republican concept that is pushed except in these polarized times) various options is a logical choice - the headache is that all the polarized politics has pushed everything back to the last minute - not the best way to insure we have a functioning work force 20 years from now.