Whitmer releases guide for school districts to help students recover from COVID-19 pandemic

Addressing teacher burnout, assessing students' mental health needs and repairing strained relationships between schools and communities over school reopenings are goals of a new state plan to help schools recover from the pandemic.

The MI Blueprint for Comprehensive Student Recovery, released by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday, was created by the Student Recovery Advisory Council and contains evidence-based recommendations, Whitmer said in a news release.

"The most pressing challenges schools face aren’t new, but they have been exacerbated by the pandemic, resulting economic hardship, and social divisions,” Whitmer said in a statement. "(The plan) will not only help local education leaders comprehensively address immediate challenges, but it will also move us towards an education system that works better for all of our children.” 

The plan asks schools to identify and reach "fully disengaged students" by calling, texting or visiting families or working with community agencies to address their needs. It suggests teachers moving with cohorts of students from one grade to the next to create a "sense of certainty and consistency."

Kevin Polston, superintendent of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools and chair of the council, said the guide allows schools to create multi-year plans for a holistic, whole-child recovery for students.

"Every recommendation is supported by leading research and designed to support Michigan students by those that know them best, leaders in education, health care, and child services from right here in Michigan," Polston said in a statement.

The council was created to identify critical issues facing students and staff and to build resources to help local education leaders.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announces, during a Jan. 8, 2021, press conference, a goal to have all school districts offer an in-person learning option by March 1, 2021.

The plan asks schools to develop a student recovery committee that will interact with stakeholders to develop a local recovery plan based in part on the state recovery plan but tailored to the community's specific needs. 

The local plan should use federal stimulus dollars to pay for the multi-year recovery process, hire new staff and expand some staff responsibilities to implement the short- and long-term local recovery efforts. 

The plan notes that school officials may need to address strained relationships between school districts and communities that became inflamed over school closure or reopening decisions.

It also stresses the importance of connecting graduates and high school students with postsecondary and career advice and opportunities. 

The blueprint also makes several policy recommendations including consistent, weighted funding that acknowledges the need for more teachers, staff and counselors. The plan also calls for innovative teaching strategies and expanded access to universal preschool. 

Michigan's two teachers' unions applauded the plan, saying it heeded the advice of frontline educators in outlining steps that can be taken to help all students succeed as the state emerges from the pandemic.

David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, said 

the plan isn’t "just a long ‘to-do list’ of mandates for schools.”

"It is a guide to ideas that can help meet the diverse and individual needs of students in the myriad of ways that this pandemic has affected them, Hecker said. "These are thoughtful, well-researched, actionable tools to help educators and students alike."

Plan urges student engagement

To improve student engagement by January, the blueprint recommends an assessment of students' strengths and needs and instruction that emphasizes "skills over content and depth over breadth." The plan also recommends targeted supports and resources for families to help with academics at home. 

Students most in need of invention should be given supplementary classwork, more enrichment opportunities, equitable grading policies to prevent high failure rates and individualized support. Schools with more students in need of intervention should consider extending learning into the summer. 

Schools should attempt to identify and reach "fully disengaged students" by calling, texting or visiting families or working with community agencies to address their needs. Plans for reengagement should be personalized. 

Schools should increase afterschool and summer programs for students and track student participation, the plan said. 

Physical challenges may exist

Among the state plan's goals are getting a baseline understanding of students' mental health needs during the first two months of the next school year and creating access for families to mental health resources.

The plan also suggests providing access to school nurses during the next school year to identify or manage conditions or vaccination needs that might have been neglected during the pandemic. It notes that schools may have to address a decrease in physical activity among students over the past year.

The plan also recommends schools address staff "burnout" and turnover by developing systems of support for educators and other school staff. 

The plan suggests district-wide surveys to gauge school "climate" and identify and address "systemic racism, classism, sexism, and discrimination based on religion."

Elizabeth Kochsman, director of the TRAILS program at the University of Michigan, which supports student mental health wellness, said schools have long been a cornerstone for vulnerable young people, but educators and school leaders have weathered a challenging year and are exhausted.

"Today, we have an opportunity to recognize the incredible value of Michigan's educational system, and to equip all schools with the resources, tools, and supports they need – to promote the wellbeing not only of students but also of the educators who have been so deeply impacted," Kochsman said in a statement.

The plan can be viewed at https://www.michigan.gov/dtmb/0,5552,7-358-82547_56345_106374---,00.html.

jchambers@detroitnews.com