State Leaders Debate Michigan Back to School Plan and Legislation

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread around the country, time is running out to make decisions about what school will look like in the Fall. Faced with continued uncertainty, educators, administrators and parents alike have resorted to making their own decisions about what school will look for their school districts and families. With many districts opting to start the year off virtually as they continue to assess how the pandemic changes this fall, and families opting to keep their kids home.

The uncertainty around returning to school has also created a fiery political debate, and many State Leaders have weighed in to raise the alarm about political agendas that are muddying progress.

MI Safe Schools Return to School Roadmap

Governor Whitmer released her MI Safe Schools Return to School Roadmap in June which outlined guidelines that schools can follow based on what stage their counties are in. This guide was created with help from educators, administrators, students and community members from around the State to bring guidance to school districts. It outlines in-person vs. virtual learning requirements, and addresses hot topics like mask wearing, social distancing, mental health, sports, and other school related unknowns.

Although the Governor shared her plan that addresses the bigger picture issues surrounding returning to school, questions still remain. These questions have resulted in additional bills making their rounds through state government. Some in conjunction with the Governor’s plan and some that would directly undermine it.

Back to School Legislation

The first set of bills, which were initially passed in the Republican controlled State House, undermined Governor Whitmer’s plan. This package of bills required all school districts in Michigan to begin in-person learning in the Fall for Kindergarten through Fifth Grade, allowed schools to utilize non-teacher staff and favored loosened restrictions on cyber-schools. Many school districts pushed back saying they didn’t need any additional restrictions, rules, and benchmarks to meet leading into the school year, and instead needed guidance and support. Some State Leaders called these efforts a means for pushing forward a political agenda in favor of for-profit and cyber schools, at a vulnerable time.

State Representative Sheryl Kennedy, D-Davison, spoke out against these Republican-led “Return to Learn” bills ahead of voting and shared “The package that came before us today utterly fails to provide any concrete support for Michigan’s students and teachers during this crisis — it’s merely another partisan power grab to privatize public education masquerading as a ‘plan”

On Friday, August 14th, however, Governor Whitmer and State House and Senate leaders reached an agreement that would revise the Return to Learn plan. These revisions put a stop to the K-5 in-person mandates, blocked outsourcing to for-profit private schools and based school data on the counts that took place during the previous year, quelling some major concerns.

Another package of bills was suggested that would provide additional guidance for testing, giving some leeway for school districts by taking the pressure off standardized testing for the year. This package of bills would lift state requirements for standardized tests such as the Kindergarten Readiness Exam, the third-grade reading screenings, M-Step, the Michigan Merit Exam, and the PSAT.

State Representative Kennedy shared the importance of these bills which would give schools some leniency, instead of additional standards and regulations outlined by previous packages. She shared, “There is no doubt that this next school year will be marked by numerous challenges. In order to overcome these obstacles, we must do all that we can to ensure Michigan’s teachers can focus on catching their students up and getting them back on a pathway to success, and that’s precisely what this package aims to do.”

Education Secretary Betsy Devos’s Agenda

Education Secretary Betsy Devos has been at the forefront of the back to school debate, especially in her home state of Michigan where many have criticized her handling of COVID-19 on a federal level. Devos has threatened to withhold funding from schools who don’t offer an in person back to school option, furthering the politicization of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One provision in Michigan, which would allow districts to contract with instruction personnel outside of teachers, has been criticized for moving forward Devos’s political agenda. State Representative Matt Koleszar, D-Plymouth, shared when discussing the original Return to Learn bill package, “I don’t know why we didn’t seek the input of the people we’d be putting on the frontlines: the teachers. This bill would take a major step towards a goal Betsy DeVos has pursued in her career: the privatization of school.”

The CDC’s Guidance

The CDC has released its own set of guidelines for reopening schools that stress the importance of mask wearing, social distancing and increased hygiene. However, questions understandably still remain about how well schools will be able to enforce these guidelines.

As the fall semester quickly approaches many school districts, teachers, and working families are facing unthinkable decisions. Whether to send their children back to school and risk the potential spread of COVID-19, or utilize online learning options that put a strain on working families. There are no right or wrong answers during this time, however state leaders have made one thing very clear: legislation passed should focus on providing resources and support to teachers and students, not pushing a political agenda with long-term consequences.

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