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Parents urge Michigan to change rules about online learning during coronavirus

Michigan parents and educators are demanding that state officials change the law so online instruction during the coronavirus school closure counts.

After Michigan State Superintendent Michael Rice said Friday that state law forbids counting the time, it touched off a wave of confusion, the ire of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and a campaign by parents to change state law so the instruction counts.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous that they’d [not count],” said Vaness Denha-Garmo, a communications specialist and parent of a Huron Valley seventh grader in western Oakland County.

Since Whitmer ordered all schools closed until at least April 5, Denha-Garmo said her daughter has done schoolwork online, completing activities suggested by teachers and emailing with her instructors.

State law requires schools to have 75 percent student attendance each day for a district to receive full state funding for that day. Attendance is impossible to determine and verify when traditional public schools are not designed to provide distance learning, according to an MDE news release Friday.

Rice said he was following state law, which requires students to complete 1,098 hours —  or 180 days — of class time per year. 

Leaders in the Republican-led House of Representatives are asking Whitmer to use her power to allow the time to count. 

Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, sent a letter to Whitmer on Friday saying she should bypass the Legislature and use her executive power to make the change.

And after saying she was “dismayed” by Rice’s ruling, Whitmer later issued a statement Friday saying students would get credit for grades and graduation.

“I will be working in the coming days to ensure our seniors graduate and that no child is held back as a result of our ability to provide face-to-face instruction during the COVID-19 school closure,” Whitmer said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for the governor confirmed she had received Chatfield’s letter and is reviewing them.

Rice said the Legislature could change the law and waive the need for every student to get 180 days of school and Whitmer said the time would count toward “grades, credits (and) graduation.”  

West Bloomfield School District officials are urging parents to contact their legislators to push them to count the time students are spending. District administrators and teachers have crafted content for students across grades.

Nancy Kim, a parent of two children in the district, protested the decision to the Department of Education and her legislators. She noted that teachers have provided rigorous lessons to “keep them interested and intellectually challenged and active.”

“The time these teachers spend on the individual basis per child might even exceed average time on a regular school day,” Kim said. 

“Is the alternative to let children do nothing until school resumes like an additional summer-slide? That would be ridiculous.”

Rice, the state superintendent, said that because not every student can access the Internet and the online content, his office said it wasn’t fair to count the instruction for some students if all cannot access it.

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“Only those districts and schools that can ensure that all students have equitable access to quality learning opportunities should pursue a full transition to online learning,” wrote Venessa Kessler, a deputy state superintendent. 

State Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, wrote on Facebook that legislators are working on the issue. She favors forgiving all missed school days, as the legislature has done when snow days have piled up during bad winters.

“It's an equity issue,” Chang wrote. 

“A lot of kids in Michigan do not have internet access so to allow some districts in more well resourced communities an ability to count this time while other communities lack access would further the inequities in our education system.”

The Detroit schools, for instance, are not offering online classes and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told The Detroit News he supported the state’s decision. 

He said it would be unfair if students who had access to online content got credit while others who had no access did not. 

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