Students and schools are struggling during the pandemic. Here’s what’s in Whitmer’s recovery plan.

Detroit Public Schools Community District student | Ken Coleman photo

Many Michigan students are struggling with academic performance and social and emotional health, teachers are suffering from burnout and colleges are experiencing plunging enrollment rates during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This month, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer rolled out a plan in response.

“The most pressing challenges schools face aren’t new, but they have been exacerbated by the pandemic, resulting economic hardship and social divisions,” Whitmer said. 

The Blueprint for Comprehensive Student Recovery was created by the Student Recovery Advisory Council that Whitmer formed in February to provide guidance and recommendations to respond to the pandemic that changed Michigan’s education system.

The council is chaired by Godfrey-Lee Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Polston, and includes school leaders, educators, public health practitioners, pediatricians, school board members, community and philanthropic leaders, legislators, parents and students.  

As schools are prepping for the upcoming school year, they have $3.3 billion in funding from the federal American Rescue Plan stimulus package that was approved in March to help get students back on track.

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Whitmer said the blueprint approaches recovery through a holistic plan, focused on student wellness, academic success, school climate, family and community engagement, postsecondary education, funding, improving teacher talent, innovation and universal preschool. 

The blueprint lays out challenges, goals and local and statewide actions to meet these different educational needs. Everything in the blueprint is a recommendation from state education leaders and none of it is mandated by the state.

“This Blueprint is relevant to teachers in classrooms across the state because it provides a path forward to a comprehensive recovery for all students,” said Greg Talberg, teacher at Howell Public Schools and chair of the Governor’s Educator Advisory Council. ”It responds directly to COVID-19, while recognizing many of the challenges and inequities that existed for our students before the pandemic and encourages us all to rethink how we teach and how kids learn.” 

House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Farwell) spokesperson Gideon D’Assandro said the speaker hasn’t had the chance to review the blueprint, but “will be looking for [the House Education Committee’s] input and will trust them to vet the proposal.”

Address wellness

Social isolation and pandemic-related stress took a toll on students’ emotional and mental health this last year.

Reports of  domestic violence and child abuse and neglect increased, during the pandemic, especially for students of color and low-income students, according to the state. 

Within the first two months of the upcoming school year, the advisory council recommends establishing comprehensive knowledge of the students’ wellness needs through mental health screenings.

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The plan also includes increasing the number of school nurses to meet the nationally recommended one school nurse for every 750 students. 

According to a study done by the School-Community Health Alliance of Michigan in 2018, Michigan has a student‐to‐school nurse ratio of 6,607 to one — the worst in the nation.

Additionally, the blueprint recommends that schools require or request documentation of immunization status for 2020-21 and 2021-22 Kindergarteners by the end of 2021. 

As for students’ mental health, the blueprint advises schools implement evidence-based, culturally-affirming and aligned social and emotional learning programs in all grade levels, ensure school staff have access to a library of trauma-informed best practices, including racial trauma and create non-threatening mechanisms for students to seek mental health support or refer a classmate to support services.

Academic success

By January 2022, the state is hoping to see students achieving academic growth measured by benchmark and formative assessments. 

The state estimates that during the fall of 2020, students returned to school with roughly 63-68% of the learning gains in reading and 37 to 50% of the learning gains in math compared to a normal year. 

And test score declines among Black students were nearly 50% larger than those of their white peers.

The plan also recommends that all students experience at least a year’s worth of growth as measured by where they are academically when they start and end the 2021-22 school year.

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Other academic recommendations include maintaining structures and systems necessary for remote learning in case that becomes necessary again, creating opportunities to integrate student voice and decision making into learning, implementing a tiered approach to student learning that prioritizes interventions and supports based on student needs and  assessing and updating grading policies to be more equitable. 

“High failure rates will not support student engagement, particularly for students who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic,” the report states.

The plan also recommends that schools consider adopting a balanced calendar that replaces summer vacation with shorter breaks during the school year, noting that this school year structure can provide additional days during breaks for the most at-risk students.

Postsecondary education

Less Michigan students were enrolling in postsecondary education during the pandemic. 

Fall 2020 college enrollment dropped by 4.4%, which is over five times the decrease in fall 2019.

With dropping college enrollment rates, the Student Recovery Advisory Council is hoping to boost the high school to postsecondary education pipeline by the 2022-23 school year.

The recommendations for high schools include ensuring all high school students have access to college advising beginning in the ninth grade and schools receive increased funding to hire more school counselors to meet this need.

Whitmer has introduced a number of programs, including the Michigan Reconnect Program and Futures for Frontliners, to help meet her goal to get 60% of the state’s residents attain a post-high school credential by 2030.

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By addressing the pandemic’s impact on students in Michigan and supporting local education leaders as they create a recovery plan for their communities, the Blueprint’s goals and high-leverage actions support our momentum in reaching Michigan’s Sixty by 30 goal,” said Ryan Fewins-Bliss, Michigan College Access Network executive director.

There also is a renewed push to get students to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), something Whitmer championed before the pandemic. 

The state reported that FAFSA completion rates fell by 7% since the 2019–20 school year, and Title I schools and schools with high numbers of minority students declined by 15 to 18%.

The state recommends schools launch a FAFSA completion campaign and require FAFSA completion as a high school graduation requirement, with opt-out provisions for students with special circumstances.

The blueprint also includes recommendations for more dual-enrollment programs so students can earn college credit while in high school. 

Recommendations for state policymakers

The blueprint lays out two funding recommendations for lawmakers for equitable funding and consistent school funding. 

The first recommendation includes appropriating all federal relief funds for schools and by 2025, enacting an education budget that is “equitable, adequate and sustainable” through a weighted formula. 

“Funding should establish a base amount for each student, with weights for students with additional needs (e.g., English learners, special education, low-income). The funding formula would support critical staff like social workers, school counselors, interventionists, teachers and other staff,” the report states.

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The second recommendation would nix any requirements on seat-time and allow for more flexibility for families who aren’t ready to send their students back for in-person learning.

In April, The state House Appropriations Committee approved some of the GOP’s $13 billion COVID-19 relief funding plan, but limited school funds to only districts that provide in-person learning.  

Additionally the blueprint recommends state policymakers adopt a statewide strategy to attract and retain educators, with intentional focus on educators of color, through financial incentives and loan forgiveness.

“There are and will continue to be increasing demands placed on educators to meet student needs, so we must be intentional about similarly increasing respect and compensation for the profession. Only then will we be able to stop and reverse the educator shortage trends we’re experiencing,” Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart said. “Failure to do so will make the job of helping all students continue their learning post-COVID-19 even harder – and none of us can afford for that to happen.”

The plan also pushes for universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds by expanding Michigan’s 3-year-old preschool pilot program to reach all 56 ISDs. 

This recommendation states that the lowest income families should be served first, but once the program is statewide access should be increased until all 3-year-olds are eligible, regardless of income. 

“Through discussions between employees and school districts, ideas from this Blueprint can be turned into localized plans of action that will make a difference for students and educators alike,” American Federation of Teachers Michigan President David Hecker said. “Everyone has a part in coming together to help our students recover from the effects of this pandemic, and our members have unique experiences and vantage points that must be heard locally to make the most of this opportunity.”

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