Education leaders need answers from state, feds in order to reopen during pandemic

education
A Capitol rally for public schools | Derek Robertson

Michigan education leaders and superintendents say they’re preparing for the school year the best they can, but they need better support from the state and federal government in order to do so. 

During a “State of Michigan Schools” roundtable hosted by the Tri County Alliance for Public Education, leaders stressed the need for flexible legislation from the state and more state and federal funding, especially as they foresee more than $1 billion in new costs to reopen schools during a pandemic. 

“We’ve seen our lawmakers continue to act powerless to help us, that without additional stimulus money, their hands are tied,” Tri-County Alliance for Public Education Executive Director Robert McCann said. “And to put it simply, they’re wrong. That excuse really can’t be passed any longer as we continue to ask these critically important questions around how or even whether schools are going to be able to reopen.”

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The Michigan House of Representatives approved four education bills on July 22 that would require in-person learning for all students in kindergarten through the fifth grade, and set regulations around e-learning days, virtual courses, attendance, standardized testing and school funding.

The package was sent to the Senate Committee on Education and Career Readiness. From there, the bills would go before the Senate for a vote.

“We laid out our expectations of policy pretty clearly, unfortunately, those bills don’t deliver on what we asked for and really go in a different direction in a number of ways,” McCann said. “So we’re hoping that in the Senate those bills can be altered in a better fashion.”

The Senate and House canceled sessions and committee meetings this week after Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville) tested positive for COVID-19, so it’s unclear when the bill package will move. 

McCann said his greatest concerns with the bills are the requirement for standardized testing in the first 30 days of the school year and the requirement for elementary students to have in-person instruction. 

Whitmer released her own “Return to School Roadmap” in June, which gives districts a range of reopening options, from schools deciding to go completely virtual to holding all in-person instruction, but stresses that school buildings shouldn’t open in geographic regions where COVID-19 caseloads are too high.

Both the GOP’s and Whitmer’s plans are heavily reliant on federal funding that hasn’t yet come through. Republican and Democratic leaders in Washington have still not struck a deal on a fifth coronavirus aid package, which could include additional funding for states, local governments and schools. 

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“Unfortunately as parents, students and teachers await these federal funding decisions, our districts are being forced to move forward with little to no guidance and certainly no funding, certainly coming from Lansing,” McCann said. 

Most schools across the state have announced plans to either go fully online for the start of the school year or offered a hybrid plan for online and in-person learning. 

“No matter how good those plans are, school districts are facing an uphill battle, not just because of the uncertain nature of this virus, but because of the funding shortfalls that make it difficult to meet the challenges associated with returning our students and staff to school safely,” Rochester Schools Superintendent Robert Shaner said.

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However, McCann isn’t convinced that leaders in Lansing need to wait until Congress puts forth more funding. 

“Lansing has borrowed billions of dollars from our K-12 school budgets over the past decade because lawmakers have chosen not to prioritize the education of our kids. Now, more than ever, that simply has to change,” he said, referring to lawmakers using School Aid Fund dollars for other budget priorities. 

“Lawmakers still have an opportunity to pass a clean K-12 spending bill immediately that utilizes General Fund dollars to make up the deficit in the School Aid Fund and ensure schools receive the resources and funding certainty they critically need as they attempt to finalize reopening plans. We’re out of time for excuses. Our students need action.”