State school chief urges lawmakers to waive time, test mandates

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

State superintendent of instruction Michael Rice is calling on state lawmakers to grant K-12 districts waivers of instructional time mandates, Michigan's third-grade reading law and statewide assessment requirements to help schools cope with closures caused by coronavirus pandemic.

New state superintendent Dr. Michael Rice, superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools is seen in his office in Kalamazoo on Wednesday, May 15, 2019.

Rice's plea comes as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, said K-12 schools in Michigan should be declared closed for the school year and districts should be required to develop an online learning platform.

On Monday, Rice spoke with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, officials with the Michigan Education Association and hundreds of members during a tele-town hall Monday afternoon, telling them students' time learning at home should count as instructional days, but that he and the state Department of Education lack the authority to make that happen.

"Without the action of the state Legislature, we have no authority to count days in which when no one is in school as school days," Rice said during the call. "The state Legislature needs to act, as it needed to act last year during polar vortex days, to indicate the days count as instruction."

Such an action, Rice said, would continue funding for the state's 842 local school districts as well as pay for employees and contract services.

“The answer can't simply be to wait,” Rice told listeners on the call.

The superintendent's request comes just days after the department he runs — the Michigan Department of Education — issued a memo that said online school work done at home will not be counted toward a state requirement that districts offer 1,098 hours or 180 days of instruction per school year.

Rice also said Monday that he does not believe school should be extended deep into summer. 

"Again this is my opinion, and not a department directive or determination," Rice said. "The state Department of Education doesn’t determine days and hours required. The state Legislature does."

Gideon Assandro, a spokesman for House Speaker Lee Chatfield, said Monday that "conversations are still ongoing with the administration, the House and the Senate about the best solution for that (waiver) issue. It is complicated by the fact this is still an evolving situation. But they are still talking and working on a solution."

On Tuesday, Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, said he is meeting with school groups this week to assess “the issues created by the statewide schools closure and evaluate short-term and long-term actions.”

FILE -- Detroit School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti is interviewed outside the Potter Stewart U.S. Federal Courthouse in Cincinnati Thursday.

Asked about Vitti's statement to end the school year, Rice's spokesman, Martin Ackley, told The News: "At the moment, the governor has closed schools until April 13. The Legislature needs to consider the days closed as instructional days. Beyond that is dependent on the stage of the situation closer to April 13."

Only two states have closed schools for the rest of the school year: Kansas and Virginia. Whitmer did extend the school closure for another full week on Monday through April 13 as part of statewide stay-at-home order she issued effective Tuesday.

Rice, who took the reins as the state's top education leader last July, also said his department will be issuing guidance "soon" on graduation requirements for the state's high school seniors.

Rice said all students on track for graduation should be able to receive diplomas.

"There is flexibility with (the) Michigan Merit Curriculum" on graduation requirements, Rice said. "We want to work with local districts so children on track to graduation will be able to do so."

Rice also said he and the department are working to create greater access to online learning for the state's 1.5 million schoolchildren, many of whom lack devices or internet access.

In an open letter to education leaders in Michigan, Vitti said school districts need guidance to determine how to best leverage limited resources to support students.

Educators are asking how to make up lost instructional days, whether the extended closure means an extended year into the summer, or if the district should salvage the rest of the school year by shifting all resources to an online learning platform.

"If we project our future based on trends in other countries that have been battling COVID-19 for a longer period of time, then we must come to realize that we will be fortunate if degrees of societal normalcy return by June," Vitti said in the letter. "With that said, it is best to officially close schools until next school year. Other states have already made this decision. How can we possibly justify opening earlier if other states have closed schools?"

Continuing education at home, Vitti said, would need to include distributing laptops with internet access to families.

Districts should continue to get full funding from the state for the rest of the school year to allow them to develop and implement online learning platforms and to feed students, Vitti said.

Current seniors should be able to graduate based on the number of credits that are required minus their last semester, he said.

"School districts, through teachers and parents, should decide which students are promoted to the next grade based on their academic status prior to closure," Vitti said.

The Detroit superintendent says school districts should be required to offer courses through summer school in subsequent years if a student or parents would like to make up credits or courses that were planned to be taken during this past semester. 

"I appreciate the time you have taken to read this open letter. It is written to offer you practical solutions to real problems that we are all responsible for solving," Vitti said. "Our state is facing unprecedented challenges, and our students, teachers and families are looking for decisive answers."

DPSCD educates more than 50,000 students. Vitti said late Monday that teachers were largely supportive of his letter, and so were other superintendents in Wayne County.

Still, Vitti accused lawmakers of hiding behind the governor’s “bold action without leading” and expressed concern they would recess without taking action on the crisis facing the state's schools.

“When you look at the doctors, nurses, grocery store workers, or our cafeteria workers who are still working … on the front lines of this crisis ... and they hide or recess. This crisis is not going anywhere,” Vitti said.

According to the American Federation of Teachers, 53 million of the nation's 57 million schoolchildren are shut out of their schools for the next several weeks.

Officials with the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators say districts need certainty and statewide action.

"While it’s too early to predict whether this closure will go on beyond April 14, we should be making plans and hoping we don’t need them," MASA spokesman Peter Spadafore said. "We are working around the clock with lawmakers, our members and the executive branch to find solutions and ensure that children are fed and that quality learning enrichment opportunities exist."

When the state Department of Education issued a memo stating that online learning done at home would not be counted as instructional time, Whitmer said she was "dismayed" by the decision, which got mixed reviews from superintendents and other education stakeholders.

The governor also said the MDE memo does not mean that schoolwork done during the mandatory school closure won’t "count" toward grades, credits or graduation.

Whitmer added 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 closures.

Meanwhile on Monday, two members of the Michigan State Board of Education urged Rice to issue waivers from the state's seat time requirements to all districts that submit a plan to continue educating their students with online learning.

Tom McMillin and Nikki Snyder, both Republican members of the board, said the Department of Education’s instruction that online classes will not count is the wrong approach during this crisis.

In response, MDE officials issued a statement from Rice that called for state lawmakers to act.