School closings spark questions, create problems

By Paula Neuman

The Covid-19 virus-caused closing of schools raised all sorts of issues, and also is shining a spotlight on existing inequities in education.

So said the experts during a March 31 online Education Town Hall hosted by state Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Twp.) with the help of State Rep. Abdullah Hammoud (D-Dearborn), Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart and American Federation of Teachers Michigan President David Hecker.

Questions — typed in to the live Zoom video conference by participants at home — were many. An executive order by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued the next day offered some answers.

“We know there are a lot of questions about what will happen with our schools,” sad Camilleri, whose district includes Grosse Ile. “How do we move forward as a state, making sure that every child has access to education?”

In the wake of the statewide school closing, teachers are working hard to offer lessons to kids online in innovative ways, but handing out paper packets of schoolwork is important, too, the experts said.

“Our state — our country — has a digital divide,” Hecker said. “An estimated one-third of kids don’t have hardware or connectivity to go online…. Low-income communities are less likely to have families with this kind of access…. We don’t want to widen that divide, but at the same time, we want every student to get the best education they can. That is a real struggle.”

Even handing out paper packets of schoolwork can be problematic given the current setting of “social distancing.”

“Who puts them together; how do they get printed?” Herbart said.

And how are they delivered to children’s homes?

“This is going to take so many of us to think in new ways,” she said.

The governor’s order requires school districts to come up with a plan by April 28 to “provide alternative modes of instruction other than in-person instruction and a summary of materials each pupil and the pupil’s parents or guardians will need to meaningfully access the alternative modes of instruction included in the plan.”

Educators are allowed to be in a school building to accomplish that plan as long as they adhere to social-distancing rules, and parents are allowed to visit schools to pick up packets for their children.

Besides finding ways to reach students, educators also are preparing meals and passing them out to children who are used to being fed one or two meals a day at school, Herbart said.

Hammoud said, “We have seen educators go above and beyond, really put their minds together and come up with out-of-the-box resources for their students.”

The governor ordered that schools continue the food distribution to eligible children.

“The big question we keep getting is the timeline,” Camilleri said.

When can kids and educators go back into classrooms full-time? It all depends on the virus.

“This is a public health crisis first,” he said. “We need to make sure our students and our educators are safe. It’s not going to be possible for every student to receive everything they need.”

The virus situation has exposed “vulnerabilities in our education,” Hammoud said. “The more this progresses, the more problems we’ll identify and the more solutions we’ll put our heads together to address.”

The legislators and educators agreed with the governor’s decision to close schools for good this school year and to graduate already passing high school seniors and promote students already on-course to a new grade instead of weighing the decision every two weeks to see if reopening schools earlier might be possible.

“Children cannot handle that kind of insecurity,” Herbart said.

But much will be lost. She said students and parents will need to grieve for what they will miss by the early school closing — a senior prom, a kindergarten fly-up ceremony, a formal graduation. And educators and school social workers need to find ways to help families who will be dealing with the loss of their jobs and with “significant crisis,” including the deaths of loved ones.

Hecker stressed the importance of “that connection between the teacher and the support staff and the students — that the student knows the teacher still cares about the kid.”

Students in special education are particularly at risk without classes and services provided by schools, the experts said. As it stands, those kids often are not getting the sessions they need with occupational therapists, speech therapists and other specialists.

“Those are the kinds of things that have to be considered,” Herbart said. “It’s still up in the air whether we’ll even be able to meet those needs.”

Hecker said, “The special education piece of the puzzle is the hardest piece to grapple with because of the needs those students have.”

What about SAT tests, normally taken in the spring by high school juniors and required by many colleges for admission?

Union leaders advocated for the state to allow those students to take the SAT tests in the fall, and the governor’s order allows for that.

Will there be summer school this year?

“That’s more of a health question than an education question,” Hecker said. “It depends on where we are. Is it safe for people to get together in a classroom in the summer? And do people think it’s safe?”

Teachers have questions, too.

Standardized tests for the year have been waived by the federal government, and the experts agreed that was positive, but many other education requirements remain to be considered due to the closings.

“We have to have a waiver of the required days (for a school year) and the 75 percent rule (that applies to the number of students in class),” Hecker said. “There are some issues that directly affect the women and men who educate our children. If I need to be recertified, how is that going to work if I can’t do the classwork? What’s going to happen to evaluations?”

The governor’s order permits school superintendents “to issue a temporary one-year teaching certificate to an otherwise qualified individual who is unable to take an appropriate subject area examination….”

The order also allows educators and school staff be paid for the rest of the year, and to continue pension accumulation during the time schools are closed.

“If schools are funded for the rest of the year, then all employees need to be paid,” Hecker said. “No one should be penalized because of Covid-19.”

The legislators and educators also agreed that many solutions, as they are realized, should be tailored with input from individual school districts.

“One thing we are consistently advocating for is local control,” Camilleri said. “This is not a one-size-fits-all situation.”

The governor’s order related to K-12 education in the wake of the virus can be read at Michigan.gov/Whitmer. It is order No. 2020-35.

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