As concerns of COVID-19 still linger, school leaders are talking about how to best reopen schools this fall. And some parents have a tough decision of their own: Do they send their students back or do they homeschool?
Anjanette Freiberger, a mother of three school-age children in Flushing, says that if her local district isn’t able to come up with a distance learning plan, she is going to choose to homeschool — something she has never done before.
“As it stands, just based on the way the illnesses are developing right now, I wouldn’t send them back,” Freiberger said.
Freiberger says she has a “different reality” than many other parents, however, because she doesn’t work outside of the home, making the transition to homeschool much easier for her family.
“I know that for a lot of parents right now, it’s especially scary for them,” Freiberger said. “And they may be in the position of having to make choices that they would not normally want to make because they’re looking at it like they have to go back to work.”
Her 10-year-old daughter, the youngest of the three, is immunocompromised, which Freiberger says is playing a large role in her decision to keep her children at home.
“It’s why we would not send the older two back. I feel like if we’re going to send the older two back, and we’re going to put them back in that petri dish, they’re going to bring it home to her anyhow,” she said. “It would be the same as just sending her back.”
And Freiberger isn’t the only parent who is concerned about sending her students back to school in the fall.
J. Allen Weston, executive director of the National Home School Association says in the last three weeks, there has been an increase of parents calling to say they are making the switch to homeschooling next year.
Weston says the reasons differ from parent to parent. Some are concerned about the safety measures schools plan to take. Others have voiced they don’t think the distance learning work being sent home with students is sufficient.
School buildings have been closed in Michigan since March 16.
However, he did note that the work that has been assigned in the last few months may not be indicative of the work assigned to students under normal circumstances.
On April 2, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced schools would not be reopening for in-person learning for the 2019-20 academic year. This sent school districts scrambling to come up with at-home learning plans.
School districts were ordered to implement a process to allow high school seniors to graduate, move younger students on to the next grade and only award credit and grades for courses based on coursework through March 11.
Freiberger said the transition to at-home learning has been easier for her daughters, who she describes as “self-starters,” but a little more challenging for her 12-year-old son who has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
For her, homeschooling isn’t the ideal option, but one she is strongly considering if the school doesn’t announce a virtual learning plan.
School leaders brainstorm options
Wanda Cook-Robinson, superintendent of Oakland Schools, said she has been talking with colleagues from Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties to come up with a multi-faceted reopening plan for their districts.
“In our discussions, it has come up that parents will keep their students at home because of their lack of confidence in the well-being of their children once they send them back to school,” Cook-Robinson said. “That is something that we are working very, very hard on, and I think we are going to come up with a potential solution to enable parents to have that confidence to send them back.”
This is something districts all across the state are having conversations about. Adding to the pressure is that losing a significant amount of students to homeschooling would be detrimental to some schools’ budgets.
In Michigan, schools are funded by the state on a per-pupil basis for K-12 students, which sits at a minimum of $8,111 per student for the current 2020 fiscal year.
Due to the hard economic hit from COVID-19, the state’s School Aid Fund — which primarily funds K-12 education — is estimated to fall short by $1.2 billion, which would be a cut of about $650 per student.
For the 2021 Fiscal Year starting Oct. 1, the School Aid Fund is expected to see another $1.1 billion shortfall.
Peter Spadafore, Associate Executive Director for Advocacy and Communications at Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, said the group has been advocating that next year’s funding should be based on the pupil count from the 2019-20 school year.
“This way, the district will at least have a known quantity when they set their budgets on how many pupils they will be accounting for. This would help alleviate some of the concerns, I think, related to a decrease in revenue from a funding standpoint, but also a decrease in revenue from a pupil reduction,” Spadafore said.
Even without the concern of losing student enrollment, schools are already looking at a devastating financial forecast for the upcoming school year.
With that in mind, schools are getting creative with how to keep students enrolled.
“I think we are going to be able to meet the needs of parents who have concerns and also the parents who want to get their kids back in school,” Michael DeVault, Macomb Independent School District superintendent said. “I think we are going to be able to meet all of our parents’ expectations. It will be a little rough, a little new, it will be different and it won’t be like anything we have done before, but I think you are going to see that the parents and the students are going to be pleased with the different options and flexibility we have for our schools. They are all working hard on it.”
DeVault said some of those options may include a regular model, a remote model, a hybrid model and a rolling opening model.
In an email to teachers at Jenison Public School, Superintendent Tom Tenbrink, said that a drop in student enrollment is an “area of concern.”
“Since our state funding is predicated on the number of students in our district, any drop in our enrollment numbers will put additional strain on our budget. For example, if we have 100 less students in our district next year that alone would equate to a loss of approximately $850,000 to our district on top of any per pupil funding cuts,” Tenbrink wrote.
But Tenbrink is expecting a drop in enrollment. He told teachers that he has heard from families that have health safety concerns or that recently learned they prefer homeschooling their children.
Luckily for Jenison Public Schools, the district already has a virtual learning program in place called Jenison International Academy (JIA). Tenbrink is urging parents to use the virtual academy so that students stay enrolled in the district.
“If any JPS parents are exploring a complete online learning opportunity for their children next year, it is imperative that we keep them in our district. Not only will it help us with district funding, but it will also ensure that if, and when, they opt to return to our brick and mortar environment we will know the students have had a solid educational experience,” he wrote. “JIA is not recruiting current students away from our traditional schools. We are simply providing information to families who may already be looking elsewhere for this type of programming.”
Tenbrink also assured staff members that “no teacher will lose their job if some families choose to enroll in JIA.”
However, Randy Liepa, superintendent of Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA), said that this financial burden and stress shouldn’t fall completely on the districts.
He said the Michigan Department of Education and the Legislature are going to have to step in “to make sure that rules have been addressed, so that we’re not negatively impacted by this.”
“Seat time waivers, like we are doing right now, will be a necessity for next year and potentially looking at adjustments to the student count to make sure the school districts aren’t impacted in a negative way because of enrollment declines, from a funding standpoint,” Liepa said. “So we will have a number of legislative or administrative issues that will need to be addressed, and we are going to need help with that in order to make sure we are able to meet every single student’s needs when they come back to school.”
State Superintendent Mike Rice waived seat times for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, but hasn’t rolled out any policy plans for the upcoming academic year. Rice did not respond to a request to further expand what policies may be implemented in the fall.
Meanwhile, Freiberger said she doesn’t want to leave Flushing Public Schools just yet, but she has to do what’s best for her family.
“I think my district is wonderful, and I definitely think that they’re trying very hard to come up with a way to make us feel supported in this,” she said. “But right now I need time. I need to keep watching this play out and feel like there is some real headway being made.”