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Whitmer 'dismayed' as MDE says online learning won't count toward instructional time

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Online learning done at home during the statewide K-12 shutdown will not be counted as instructional time, state education officials announced on Friday, fueling concerns about possibly extending the school year into the summer and leading Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to say she was "dismayed" by the decision.

The Michigan Department of Education issued a memo in response to questions Whitmer was getting from superintendents and education officials since she ordered all K-12 schools closed through April 5, an action that sent 1.5 million Michigan school children home.

Ellen Herget, an art teacher, prepares her online schedules and classes for her students at West Bloomfield High School earlier this month.

The memo — written by Venessa A. Keesler, state deputy superintendent, and Kyle Guerrant, deputy superintendent in finance and operations — says "there is no mechanism to earn instructional time during a period of mandated school closure. However, schools can and are encouraged to offer supplemental learning opportunities to students using distance learning methods as they see fit.

"MDE will not be granting seat time waiver requests during this time." 

The state requires 1,098 instruction hours per year for every student. It was not clear what immediate impact the memo would have since it's not clear when students are returning to school.

State board of education president Casandra Ulbrich said on Friday the decision was made due to the inequities between districts in their ability to deliver online education.

"It comes down to a fairness issue. Not every district has the ability to offer programming in the same way," she said. "It's not fair to allow districts with resources to count days and other districts trying to get resources not qualify to count those days."

Asked if the state could create equity among districts if the shutdown extends past 15 school days, Ulbrich said conversations on that issue are underway.

"We encourage the Legislature to create equitable funding structures so schools can do those kinds of things. Can they do it in 15 days? No," Ulbrich said. "We've been having these conversations on equitable funding for so long and they haven't gone anywhere. Maybe this the impetus we need to create equitable systems in these schools."

Late Friday afternoon, Whitmer told reporters she was "dismayed" at MDE's decision.

"I know that MDE put out a statement today. I was dismayed to see that, frankly," Whitmer said, "and we are going to work to make sure that kids are getting the instruction or the equivalent of an instruction as needed so that they can finish this year having gotten the education that they’re supposed to get.”

In a statement issued Friday night, the governor said she wanted to clarify the meaning of MDE's memo.

"The memo does not mean that school work done during the mandatory school closure won’t 'count' toward grades, credits, or graduation," Whitmer said. "Each district should determine what services and supports they are able to provide during this unprecedented crisis."

Whitmer added that she "will be working in the coming days to ensure our seniors graduate and that no child is held back" as a result of the COVID-19 school closure. 

Reaction by educators to MDE's memo was a mix of outrage, shock and support.

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, said he supports the decision. Many DPSCD students lack internet connectivity and take-home devices.

"It is a thoughtful, practical and fair decision considering the inequitable resources among school districts and families regarding access to technological tools such as devices, laptops and internet access," said Vitti, whose district, with more than 50,000 students, is the largest in Michigan.

If MDE did not do this, he said, then depending on ZIP code some students would be gaining academic credit and others not.

"This obviously would be unfair to students and families," Vitti said.

Teacher Alyce Howarth, who was reached Friday during one of her online lessons with students, said she is working every school day and the time should count as instruction.

"Right now this is still a novelty for my students," said Howarth, a 6th grade social studies teacher in the Southfield Public Schools. "I am getting an enthusiastic response from many of them, they are submitting work and I am chatting with them. It will probably wear off."

Districts across Michigan, meanwhile, have spent the week scrambling to provide education resources and food to students who are displaced from school. Many have set up daily instructional time for students while others declared this week spring break and have sent little to no materials home for children to continue their education.

Steve Matthews, superintendent of Novi Community Schools, called the announcement by the state education department tone-deaf and disrespectful at the same time.

"We've all worked hard to provide instructional opportunities for our kids. Teachers have transitioned to provide virtual opportunities and kids are engaged in meaningful learning," Matthews said. "Just to come out and say this doesn't count for anything ... doesn’t respect the work the teacher are doing."

Matthews said state lawmakers have not decided whether to forgive the days as they did in 2019 for snow days. Lawmakers could require districts to extend the school year, he said. If that happens, Novi schools would need to have school through July 3.

"At some level, we need some direction on what is going to happen," Matthews said.

On social media, the Michigan Education Association was urging members to write to lawmakers and urge them to provide forgiveness for closure days and to pay all school staff. The campaign had nearly 24,000 signatures Friday afternoon.

Paula Herbart, MEA president, said as the memo states, there isn’t a mechanism to earn instructional time during a period of mandated school closure.

"Those requirements are set by the Legislature, which is why we’re working hard to get the state House and Senate to return to Lansing to take action on continued pay for all school employees and forgiveness of time during this closure."

Neither House Speaker Lee Chatfield nor Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey had reviewed the MDE guidance as of Friday afternoon, but both expected legislative action in the future to address the questions prompted by the school closures, spokespersons for the GOP leaders said.

"Conversations about how to best help schools deal with the coronavirus disruption are still ongoing, including instructional time and days," said Gideon D'Assandro, a spokesman for Chatfield, R-Levering.

Late Friday, state superintendent of instruction Michael Rice issued a statement saying the legislature should change state law to permit days out of school for the public health emergency to be counted as instructional days.

Last year, the state legislature took similar action with days missed because of the polar vortex, Rice said.

“Under the current conditions, the legislature should make clear in law that the school year will not be extended into the summer,” Rice said.

State lawmakers will also need to relax the Michigan Merit Curriculum high school graduation requirements, teacher and administrator evaluation requirements, and other legal requirements, Rice said.

“It will also need to ensure that all public school employees, salaried and hourly; all contracted service providers, instructional and non-instructional; and all substitute staff members be paid during this period of emergency. This is an unprecedented time,” Rice said.

When schools will reopen remains uncertain. Although Whitmer ordered schools to be closed only through April 5, CDC guidelines for schools say available modeling data indicate that early, short-to-medium closures will not impact the curve of COVID-19.

"There may be some impact of much longer closures (8 weeks, 20 weeks) further into community spread, but that modelling also shows that other mitigation efforts (e.g., handwashing, home isolation) have more impact on both spread of disease and health care measures," the guidelines say.

The CDC goes on to to say in other countries, places where schools closed such as Hong Kong, have not had more success in reducing spread than those that did not, such as Singapore.

According to guidance from Michigan education officials, only districts that can deliver education to all students, including English language learners and those with disabilities and federal education plans, should move forward with online learning. That includes ensuring that all students have internet access and a home device.

“Only those districts and schools that can ensure that all students have equitable access to quality learning opportunities should pursue a full transition to online learning,” the memo states.

State officials said last week they are working with partners to model the spread of the outbreak based on what experts know from other states and Michigan's own mitigation strategies.

"We will work with the CDC who has indicated they will be working with states and providing guidance on how and when to release school closures," Lynn Sutfin, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said.

During the shutdown, school districts have big variations in what they are asking of students and parents, and in their ability to deliver educational services remotely. Some, like West Bloomfield Public Schools, are taking daily attendance online, while others like Whitefish Township Public Schools in the Upper Peninsula, are not offering instruction at all due to a lack of internet access in remote areas of the state.

Major differences can also be found depending on a child's grade level. High school and some middle school children may already be connected online to their teachers and school through Google Classroom and Google Docs. 

Bill DeFrance, superintendent of Eaton Rapids Public Schools, said MDE's decision makes sense for many reasons.

DeFrance said his district would have to get devices and internet access to 500 to 700 students who do not have them and re-create the service level for special needs students in remote locations like their homes.

"Each of these two hurdles are there for most districts. So the department's position is logical if it does not want to build a larger gulf between haves and have-nots," DeFrance said.

Beth DeShone, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, a charter school advocacy group, issued a statement Friday demanding the state reverse course on its decision "to punish public school teachers and students who have continued teaching, learning, and growing during the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis."

DeShone said many schools, districts, and families shifted this week – at great effort and expense – to online or virtual learning to ensure the school year and students' education were not disrupted.

“Public school teachers, parents, and students have worked incredibly hard, night and day, to ensure learning and classwork continues even in the face of a public health crisis,” DeShone said. “MDE just told them to stop trying. Teachers’ and parents’ efforts should be commended, celebrated, and – most importantly – counted, not coldly discounted by bureaucrats in Lansing.”

Student Farrah Fasse, a sophomore at Grosse Pointe North High School, objected to MDE's decision and wrote to Shirkey on Friday about how hard she and her classmates are working at home on online assignments.

"I can attest to you that, in my school district at least, our teachers have been working tirelessly to transfer our in-class lessons into a format suitable for remote learning," Fasse, 15, said in a letter to Shirkey. "This was incredibly difficult with the short time they had to transfer the lessons online, but, even with this, all my classes had lessons up and running on Monday morning, some even before that."

Fasse added: "This week, we have set aside hours of time every single day to study, do homework, watch videos, take tests and quizzes, take notes, read, and write everything we are meant to do that was assigned by our teachers," Fasse told Shirkey. "We are not taking this time off as if it was a ‘snow day,’ as we are working as hard, if not harder, at home than we do in school."

jchambers@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.