Michigan superintendent: Don’t force schools to resume in-person classes

Michigan Superintendent Michael Rice on Tuesday proposed a one-year freeze in state enrollment counts to ensure districts do not use pandemic policy to lure students — and their per-pupil funding — from neighboring schools. 

LANSING — Michigan schools shouldn’t be forced to resume in-person classes this fall and should receive funding allocations based on last year’s enrollments, state Superintendent Michael Rice argued Tuesday. 

Testifying before a Senate committee, Rice criticized legislation approved last week by the Republican-led House to require all Michigan school districts to offer the option of in-class instruction for students in kindergarten through fifth grade despite concerns over COVID-19. 

“Given the pandemic and the substantial fears of parents and staff, this is not practicable in every district in the state,” Rice told lawmakers, predicting some districts could prefer to continue with a “distance learning” approach for the entire school year, depending on how the continuing coronavirus pandemic unfolds. 

Because some parents may transfer children depending on districts’ plans, Rice proposes a one-year freeze in state enrollment counts to safeguard against districts luring students — and state funding — from their neighbors.

“If we start doing fresh counts in 2021, we are going to exacerbate the instability in the environment that already exists,” Rice told lawmakers. “We will create even more instability by unleashing this competition around in-person versus at a distance, and I do not think it will benefit our children.”

The debate comes as districts plan for what may be the most unpredictable school year in Michigan history. Because many districts now begin their academic year prior to Labor Day, state officials have only weeks to decide how and if to regulate reopenings. 

Not only are cases trending upward — to a seven-day average of 639 on Tuesday from 290 one month ago, June 28 — but without more federal aid, the state’s School Aid Fund faces a $1.1 billion shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts in October.

The House GOP plan, now awaiting action in the Senate, would limit the number of “e-learning” days that Michigan districts can count toward the 180 days of instruction required under Michigan law. It would also allow districts to contract with non-certified teachers for online classes and require the Michigan Department of Education to create a new Pupil Accounting and Pupil Auditing Manual Oversight Committee to oversee a new student count model. 

In-person instruction is “ideal” from an education standpoint, especially as schools try to make up for time lost last year, said Rice, who operates independent of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer but has generally aligned with her on education policy. 

He compared the GOP proposal to shooting a mosquito with a cannon: “You may get the mosquito, but you’re likely going to do a lot of collateral damage along the way.”

Schools need flexibility — and at least some modicum of certainty — as they design fall plans, Rice said. To that end, he urged lawmakers to waive requirements that districts provide at least 1,098 instructional hours and take attendance each day, arguing it would be nearly impossible for schools to track or enforce those requirements for students learning at home and online. 

State Sen. Lana Theis, a Brighton Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, defended the House GOP package but said she is open to new ideas. Time is limited, however. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, hopes to finalize legislation by Aug. 6. 

“I have a lot of parents who are insisting that they want in-person education, and I have a lot of parents who are insisting that they don’t,” Theis said. “Those two things are mutually exclusive unless we find a way to do distance teaching well.”

Whitmer, who closed schools in March as the coronavirus quickly spread across Michigan, last month released a 63-page “return to school roadmap” that proposes rules and recommendations for the fall. 

The plan from Whitmer anticipates districts will resume in-person classes or some sort of “hybrid” approach that includes online instruction, but it does not prohibit schools from keeping their buildings closed if local leaders choose to do so. 

“We can’t dictate for all 800 districts precisely what a day looks like,” Whitmer said Tuesday. 

“Some of the work that’s coming out of the Republcan-led Legislature has merit. Other pieces of it are modeled after the [U.S. Education Secretary Betsy] Devos plan to force schools to put kids back in the classroom.”

 

Despite the House GOP proposal, a handful of school districts have already announced plans to keep buildings closed this fall and start the school year with online-only instruction.

Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Leadriane Roby on Monday recommended the 14,000-student district utilize "distance learning" through at least Oct. 21, citing the "health, safety, and well being of our students and staff."

Rice told lawmakers he hopes that most schools will “maximize” opportunities for in-person instruction, when possible, but he said the public health crisis takes precedence over public education. 

“As I speak to public health people, I don’t hear that the conditions are likely to become better,” Rice warned. “As we get deeper into the school year, as we get into a flu season, as we move into a likely second wave of the pandemic, what I hear is the best opportunity for in-person instruction is at the beginning of a school year, not deeper.”

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Comments

Hank
Tue, 07/28/2020 - 6:29pm

It’s simple. Parents want in-person. There are Metro Detroit numbers as high as 91% and 85% in favor of it. Of course you’re going to have parents seeking it out in other districts. Parents know remote learning as it stands is a farce. It is an absolute travesty. Stop pretending a full year of remote learning is even in the neighborhood of the same quality.

middle of the mit
Tue, 07/28/2020 - 10:00pm

If this is the case. then there should be NO more Home Schooling allowed at ALL!

If social interaction is worth putting the whole of society at risk for our children to learn social, educational and other skills, then home schooling has to GO AWAY!

I won't allow you to push two different social constructs on the people of Michigan without explaining yourselves for why one is good and the other during a pandemic is horrible!

Make your case!

Okay -
Thu, 07/30/2020 - 10:07am

Home school isn't distance learning; the teacher (parent) is present with the student. Curriculum is not delivered through spotty internet or to devices that are not proper for the task.
Social interaction happens in home school situations through group study/classes, educational experiences arranged by parents intimately familiar with their students' interests and needs, and athletic organizations.
As home schooling is a choice, parents voluntarily commit to being present unlike forced school closure where children (especially poor, at-risk children or those in single-parent homes) may be left in unsafe circumstances, with inadequate supervision, limited access to decent food, and lack of support services they receive through their local school.

middle of the mit
Thu, 07/30/2020 - 1:23pm

Your first paragraph states that we already have a system in place to do this without internet. What's the problem then?

How does social interaction happen when students live miles apart? Do parents take their kids to other kids houses and let them be taught by other parents? Why can't we do this too?

Communities around the State and nation have set up food delivery for those that are eligible for reduced or free lunch. Solved.

And it isn't like we are asking for this to be the way things will work for the rest of eternity unlike homeschooling. Do you really think a handful of kids playing around is the same as thousands of kids in the same building having to learn to deal with eachother?

I don't see the difference and I think you are trying split hairs with a butter knife.

Joan
Wed, 07/29/2020 - 4:47am

Disagree, where are you getting your poll numbers??? All the parents I know are terrified by the lack of concern for the safety of our families.

Jennifer
Tue, 07/28/2020 - 9:10pm

Schools should be back in session for face to face learning in some manner if their local health department and state health officials say it is safe to do so. This is a public health crisis and these are the people who should make the call. Not the Govenor, not the school boards, not the teachers unions. "I don't feel safe" has no science behind it. Schools shut down because of science and the numbers, they need to open with science and numbers. If schools were ordered to close by the health department (or Govenor), they wouldn't (and didn't) question it - closed the next day. Now it comes time to open and those same groups say "yes, it's safe to open within guidelines " and schools take it upon themselves to stay closed?

Rice stated that schools need flexibility. True, but so do parents and kids. Flexibility isn't 100% face to face or 100% remote, it's a combination of those for parents who can't afford to quit their jobs to stay home, those parents who feel it's not safe to return, kids who aren't capable of learning on-line, and kids who thrive on-line. In the end, this will most likely be the new normal anyway.
Bottom line is open up your schools in some form for face to face unless there is compelling scientific reason not to, or lose some funding and/or your students to schools who do open.

BTW, Grand Rapids is not opening for education, but athletics will continue at school per MHSAA guidelines .

seriously?
Wed, 07/29/2020 - 4:33pm

Local health officials? One in northeast Michigan said he doesn't even conduct annual tests of his own drinking water in his family's well, notwithstanding the PFAS crisis. He said it's too expensive. When asked how often he tests his water, he said "never". Imagine how useful this person would be protecting the general public, let alone our children and their teachers.

If people don't feel safe, they won't send their children to school. Thankfully, Republicans gave us the homeschool option. Now they want to take it away. Shame on them. Even if you don't care about our health, it's just not fiscally feasible or responsible to run school buildings in Michigan with half or less of the students.

Don't buy it
Wed, 07/29/2020 - 4:38pm

"Rice stated that schools need flexibility. True, but so do parents and kids. Flexibility isn't 100% face to face or 100% remote, it's a combination of those for parents who can't afford to quit their jobs to stay home..." Um, how are they working now that it is summer? They need to continue doing the same thing. We are at war and the virus is winning because no one is taking the virus seriously. The number of cases is going UP, not DOWN because Republicans think the virus is a hoax, a joke. Well, most parents and teachers aren't laughing.

Anonymous
Wed, 07/29/2020 - 4:49am

When did Republicans become the party of one size fits all?

Randy Lahey
Wed, 07/29/2020 - 6:01am

Let's see here.
At what risk of coronavirus death are the K-12 kids? ZERO.
At what risk are the "younger than retirement age" teaching staff? NEAR ZERO (more likely to die in a car accident).
So what's this all about?
Sounds like a bunch of teachers want to sit at home and teach while imbibing their favorite beverage.
We need to fire every member of the education process who support this shutdown and bar them from teaching ever again.

I call BS
Wed, 07/29/2020 - 4:40pm

Let's see here.
The credibility of your post: ZERO
"Sounds like a bunch of teachers want to sit at home and teach while imbibing their favorite beverage"? Yeah, coffee in between classes. Grow up.

Enough
Wed, 07/29/2020 - 8:42am

I'm so tired of Republicans making all bad situations worse.

Dan Mosser
Wed, 07/29/2020 - 4:41pm

Same here.

Duncan
Wed, 07/29/2020 - 9:50am

So Bridge mandates 1) follow the rules 2) do what you’re told 3) don’t make waves . Sorry I opt-out .

Anonymous
Wed, 07/29/2020 - 4:43pm

Bridge???? Someone needs a nap.

Linaka
Wed, 07/29/2020 - 10:34am

The health and safety of our families, teachers, and staff are more important than in-person education. The schools have had the summer to improve virtual learning. The parents I've heard wanting in-person school are wanting it because they don't know what to do with their kids while they work. School is not childcare. What have they been doing all summer with the kids? The increase in cases means we'll probably have to dial back and schools will probably just shut down again. As a parent who also has a high risk family member in our home, I'm glad to have virtual school and am especially pleased that our district is going to have live connection classrooms.

Amy's Dad
Wed, 07/29/2020 - 4:46pm

Makes sense, some schools will be online with limited time for small groups of students to get additional help in person. Thank God smart people are in charge in Michigan.

angela Maria ga...
Wed, 07/29/2020 - 12:39pm

Did I just read in the above article that districts are hiring non certified teachers to handle online teaching? What? What districts are doing so and how common is this? It’s an outrage if this is true.

angela Maria ga...
Wed, 07/29/2020 - 12:45pm

Did I just read in the above article that districts are hiring non certified teachers to handle online teaching? What? What districts are doing so and how common is this? It’s an outrage if this is true.

angela Maria ga...
Wed, 07/29/2020 - 12:45pm

Did I just read in the above article that districts are hiring non certified teachers to handle online teaching? What? What districts are doing so and how common is this? It’s an outrage if this is true.

Jamie
Thu, 07/30/2020 - 9:08pm

The GOP want to change current law to allow for the contracting of online teachers. It's just another attack on the teaching profession.