Teachers finally invited to testify about school reopening concerns

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Two teachers were asked to testify during the Senate Education and Career Readiness committee meeting Tuesday — the first time educators were able to share their perspectives on the state’s school reopening plans during a legislative hearing. 

A number of Democratic legislators raised concerns during a July 15 state House and Senate joint Education Committee meeting about the lack of teachers in the conversation. No teachers were present again during a July 21 House Education Committee meeting.

The Republicans’ “Return to Learn” legislation, which was approved by the House last week, would require in-person learning for all students in kindergarten through the fifth grade and sets regulations around e-learning days, virtual courses, attendance, standardized testing and school funding.

Senate Chair Lana Theis (R-Brighton), the Senate Education and Career Readiness committee chair, said House Chair Pamela Hornberger (R-Chesterfield Twp.) “specifically requested during the committee hearing last time … stakeholders to give their ideas and their solutions.”

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“The bill sponsors, I believe, are happy to hear alternatives,” Theis said. 

Jessica Lucchesi, a kindergarten teacher at Fulton Elementary School in Middleton in mid-Michigan, said that after she reviewed the bill package she found some areas of concern, specifically around policies that require access to the internet, outsourcing virtual classes to private companies, attendance requirements and benchmark assessments.

Many families and staff members in her school district do not have adequate access to high speed internet, which she is concerned would make e-learning days nearly impossible. 

“Last spring, the school district looked into acquiring internet for families, and in all of the cases, it was either completely unavailable or it was so expensive that there was just no way to do it,” Lucchesi said. 

The GOP plan would limit the number of snow days allowed for each district to encourage the use of remote instruction when in-person instruction is unsafe or unsuitable.

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“While it’s unfortunate that snow days cause us to lose that day of instruction, replacing them with e-learning days, I fear, is going to widen the gap between the high-achieving students and the students who are struggling.”

Regarding House Bill 5910, which allows for educational services and school employees to be contracted through private organizations, Lucchesi says she is “nervous that being able to contract that out is going to lower the quality of staff available.”

She also said that this bill takes power away from local districts to judge the quality of education for their students. 

Lucchesi also shared concern with the mandate in the bill package that requires districts to provide in-person instruction for K-5 students, even if local health departments recommend against in-person learning. 

“What happens if the Health Department says, ‘This isn’t safe. We want these kids in school, but this just isn’t safe.’ There’s contradicting language,” she said. “It’s essentially forcing schools to choose between potentially unsafe student situations and having students go to them in order to get their funding.”

Amy Kosmatka, a teacher at Lutheran High School North, a private school in Macomb Township, said her main concern is that there is the uncertainty around whether or not brick-and-mortar schools will be able to open at all due to the pandemic.

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This is an issue that no one has the answer to right now. 

Kosmatka, who supports in-person instruction this fall, said she opposes the bills because they don’t do enough to give districts autonomy in making decisions about whether school buildings will reopen.

“We all know that at this point, in-person instruction hinges on what phase the state is in, and I do not believe that is a correct process to have in place,” Kosmatka said, referring to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s plan for Michigan’s reopening. “However, for the most part, these bills do not address the topic that I feel is most prudent – giving schools, districts, non-public schools, parents and teachers the ability to make their own choice of whether to teach in-person, of course adhering to the recommended safety protocols, or be forced to teach online.”

During a press conference Tuesday, Whitmer said that under her “Return to School Roadmap” that she released in June, the decision of whether there’s online or in-person instruction is largely a local decision.

“We can’t dictate for all 800 districts precisely what a day looks like,” Whitmer said. “… We are three or four weeks out from when schools are supposed to resume. Our actions today are going to yield what the numbers are on those days when kids are supposed to go back to school.”

If regions of the state fall back into phase 3 of the governor’s six-phase MI Safe Start Plan, school buildings in those areas will be forced to close.

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Six of Michigan’s geographic regions are in Phase 4 of Whitmer’s plan to reopen the economy, while the Upper Peninsula and the Traverse City region are in Phase 5, in which gyms, theaters and other higher-risk facilities are open.

Also during Tuesday’s committee meeting, State Superintendent Michael Rice gave a presentation recommending how best to reopen schools safely in the next few weeks. 

“We all want to be in school to begin the year. As a rule, schools are the best place for children to learn and for teachers to teach. As a rule, they’re far superior to education at a distance. As a rule, teaching and learning form a social science best done with children, teachers, support staff and administrators in school,” Rice said. “Unfortunately, however, pandemics aren’t rules; they are exceptions.”

Rice said that the state should not be setting statewide legislation and that decisions should be made on a district level. He also stated that the MDE does not support the bill package because of the attendance policies, the requirement for younger students to be physically present in schools and some of the policies around standardized benchmark assessments.

Rice said the Legislature should waive the mandated hours of instruction and the requirement of 75% attendance daily for the upcoming school year. 

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Rice also urged members of the committee to push for more federal funding from Congress to ensure that the state won’t have to make large cuts to education as they begin negotiations for the Fiscal Year 2021 budget. 

“The focus on Congress … for funding is fine, and we’re talking to our members in our part of the delegation,” said state Sen. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth). “But if we step back to phase three, as some have indicated, it is less and less certain for school funding. If school funding is this highly critical, there must be a balance between our economy and our budgets. It’s everything. If we don’t get our economy moving safely and have a healthy economy, we will never have healthy schools.”

President Donald Trump has pushed for governors to reopen economies since the early days of the pandemic when most states were closing down businesses to limit the spread of COVID-19. 

He also has threatened to cut off federal funding if schools do not offer in-person learning. 

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Lastly, Rice said the MDE does support the use of benchmark assessments this fall to analyze how the closure of schools and distance learning affected students in the spring, but he offered some conditions to the current legislation around testing.

House Bill 5913 requires that each district administer a benchmark assessment during the first 30 days of the school year and provide a report identifying the number and percentage of students who are significantly behind grade level to the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees on school aid and the House and Senate Fiscal agencies by Dec. 1.

“Local data should be used solely at the local district level for the purposes of improving teaching and learning for children and should not be released statewide similar to current practice, Rice said. 

He also stated that the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) should not be required to complete an analysis of data by Feb. 1, rather than Dec. 1, saying that the analysis if rushed would be “incomplete and unusable.”

“MDE and all the major education organizations in the state are opposed to these bills in some fashion or another, which reminds me of an old metaphor — taking a cannon to a mosquito,” Rice said. “As the story goes, if you take a cannon to a mosquito, you may get the mosquito, but you’re likely to do a lot of collateral damage along the way. Such is the case with the bills before you in committee.”