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

teacher in classroom

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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