State's school districts move to retool education for next three months

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's order to indefinitely close all K-12 schools means no classroom learning, no state assessments and no teacher evaluations will take place this school year.

The governor's order, issued Thursday, is clear that learning for Michigan's 1.5 million K-12 students will continue at home and teaching will continue for the state's educator workforce.

But what that learning will look like entirely depends on each district, its resources and its ability to quickly craft an online learning plan that will carry students through the next three months, according to the governor's vision.

Whitmer has challenged each of the state's nearly 850 school districts to come up with its own plan to educate students at home.

Steve Matthews, superintendent of Novi Community Schools in Oakland County, said Whitmer has given every district "wiggle room" to serve the educational needs of students.

"We are required to create learning plans for instruction, get them approved by ISDs," Matthews said. "It's not a statewide plan. It's not a countywide plan. It’s a district-by-district plan."

"Just around Oakland County, there is a wide spectrum of districts. We have some of the wealthiest and some of the poorest — rural and suburban," Matthews said. "It really does depend on each district knowing who their students are to make good choices for the rest of the year so they don’t fall back."

Michigan joins at least nine other states that have closed K-12 schools for the remainder of the school year. Whitmer's 17-page order can be found here. On March 12, Whitmer shuttered K-12 schools through April 5. Last week, she amended the K-12 school closure to run through April 12, when she placed Michigan in a stay-at-home order that continues through April 13.

Whitmer's order says seat-time requirements and attendance requirements for state aid will be waived for districts with approved plans for remote learning. State law says districts are required to provide at least 1,098 hours and 180 days of pupil instruction. It also says districts are required to have 75% attendance to be eligible for state aid.

Her order suspends evaluations for teachers and administrators for the school year and continues to pay employees through the end of the budget year on June 30.

Whitmer said all Michigan high school seniors will be given the opportunity to graduate this year and all standardized tests scheduled for the remainder of the school year, including the M-STEP and the SAT, will be canceled.

Students who will be high school seniors this fall will be able to take the SAT in October.

Whitmer also said school districts can adopt a balanced calendar for the current school year and/or begin the 2020-21 school year before Labor Day without getting additional approval. 

Whitmer said if a remote learning plan relies on online instruction, districts should ensure every student who needs it has access to a device and the internet. An estimated 500,000 students in Michigan don’t have a connection or a device or both, education officials have said.

Remote learning plans must detail how districts will manage and monitor student progress, she said, and provide a start time no later than April 28.

By Friday, under Whitmer's order, the Michigan Department of Education, along with the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators and the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers must develop and distribute a model template for a remote learning plan.

Intermediate school districts must be ready by April 8 to begin reviewing submitted plans and approving or rejecting them, Whitmer's order says. Public school academies must have their plans approved by their authorizer, and districts can also partner with one another to create joint plans.

Thomas McKee, superintendent of Whitefish Township Community Schools in the Upper Peninsula said his district, where 48% of students lack internet access, is looking at a project-based model for middle and high school students.

"We understand that there is a lot of anxiety and fear in the unknown, so our teachers' primary role moving forward will be counselors first," McKee said. "In a small district, that is one of the many hats that our teachers wear day to day, so they will be checking in on students and families and working at reducing anxiety and trying to give some guidance and normalcy as best they can."

The school shutdown, McKee said, has given elected officials and the public a good look at inequities in education across the state and an opportunity to fix them.

"I think that there are a lot of things that are going to come from this closure," he said. "My hope is that this gives people in positions of power a chance to retool what education should and could look like. We have been status quo for hundreds of years. Maybe it is time to address that. Maybe it is time for local districts to have the control over what is best for their students."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" March 5.

Educators said the guidance Whitmer provided with her order to suspend various testing and reporting requirements, along with ensuring districts have the flexibility to deliver remote learning programs, will give schools the path forward they need.

“We appreciate Governor Whitmer providing schools with the necessary guidance that will help us give our students every opportunity possible to continue learning and growing during this unprecedented disruption in their lives,” said Eve Kaltz, TCA vice president and superintendent of Center Line Public Schools in Macomb County.

“As difficult a challenge as this will be for educators, it’s going to be an even bigger challenge for our students and the governor’s action today best helps us to provide them the certainty they both need and deserve.”

Okemos superintendent John Hood said his district has been preparing for weeks for the reality of students not returning this school year.

"Serious equity issues need to be addressed. Not just internet, but that all kids have access to the content we're providing and our teachers have the skills to provide content," Hood said. "We believe kids in front of our faces are the best way to provide instruction. This is a big shift for us."

Okemos schools will designate a "master teacher" to coordinate with all other teachers in that grade to provide consistent at-home instruction for the rest of the school year.

"We are also hearing that our families are overwhelmed right now," he said. "They want the education to continue but we have families who are unemployed, worried about their next paycheck or meal. We have families working from home. Circumstances are so different."

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, the state's largest school system, said his district has been developing a new learning framework that will offer opportunities for pre-K-12 students in core subjects, gym and art. The district will release the platform April 14, and it plans to provide all students with a tablet and internet access next month.

"All of our school-level staff will have specific roles and responsibilities to engage students and families during the closure through phone calls and the virtual platform of 'Teams,'" Vitti said.

"We will focus on students’ learning and their social emotional needs during these difficult times as well. All of the assignments will be printed as well to address the city’s digital divide. We are actively working with the business community to implement a strategy to provide all DPSCD families with a tablet and internet access. Our goal is to execute this commitment by early/late May."

Meagan Vanover, a public school teacher and a parent of two school-age children, said she was not shocked about Whitmer's decision. She was shocked it took so long.

Vanover said her seventh- and 10th-grade children have adjusted to online learning at home and continue to do homework in the third week of the school shutdown.

"I have expected this all along," she said. "I am emotionally sad for them. I am in a grieving process, for their loss of sports. I feel bad for current seniors and their loss. That’s a hard reality to lose that."

Vanover, who teaches at New Haven Elementary School in New Haven Community Schools in Macomb County, said she still has a lot of questions for Whitmer.

"As a teacher, I know that nothing that has come home is actually required. We can't assign work to these kids because you don’t know the situation at home. You don’t know if they have internet," Vanover said.

What happens when food runs out at school, she asked.

"How are these children at home able to keep up, get food, when their parents are going back to work?" Vanover said. "What will achievement gaps look like in the future if every district is doing something different? I have teacher friends and everyone is doing something different. Not one of us is doing the same thing."

Whitmer's decision also created more questions for parents who are wondering how they can home-school children and go back to work in coming months.

Parent Joyce Krom said Whitmer's decision to close school for the rest of the year has left her feeling apprehensive about her children's educational future. Krom has an eighth-grader and a 12th-grader in Berkley Public Schools.

"Both of my kids have learning disabilities and are struggling significantly with distance learning," she said.

Krom, who has been laid off as a librarian, said if she gets called back to work, she does not know how her younger daughter will be able to complete schoolwork on her own for three months.

"I hesitate to get too deep into homeschooling my kids only to pull the rug out from underneath them," Krom said. "I don’t feel equipped to home-school my kids if it's actually going to count."

Staff Writers Christine MacDonald and Beth LeBlanc contributed.