Michigan school chief to lawmakers: Ease attendance rules

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

The state's school superintendent stressed Tuesday that the Legislature must waive enrollment and attendance requirements as Michigan districts navigate a pandemic and varying instructional plans for students this fall.

State superintendent Michael Rice reiterated during a virtual meeting of the State Board of Education that traditional methods of logging days, hours, enrollment and attendance have to change this school year. 

New state superintendent of public instruction Dr. Michael Rice said Benton Harbor's schools should not be shut down. "The high school is the center of a community, particularly in a one-high-school town," he said.

He has advocated for an amendment to state law to waive instructional hour and attendance requirements for 2020-21 and based on the "enormous uncertainty" tied to COVID-19, enrollment should be based on figures from fall 2019, he added. 

Executive orders signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in the spring that waive the state's minimum requirement for instructional hours and a 75% minimum daily attendance law serve only as a "temporary backstop" and are set to expire Sept. 30, he noted. 

Rice said his hands are tied in most respects. He has no authority under state law to waive those requirements on his own. His ability to waive daily and hourly instruction rules are "imperfect" and would come with "substantial limitations."

Even so, Rice said he's "prepared to use my limited authority" if all other efforts are exhausted without a resolution.

"It makes best sense for the Legislature to address them all cohesively ... rather than they be chopped up between and among multiple parties," he said. "To do otherwise could adversely affect children and schools, albeit inadvertently."

Rice in July sent a letter to lawmakers outlining his recommendations and said Tuesday that the issue remains under debate in Lansing.

The state's top leader also has urged educators and the public to plead with federal officials to spare Michigan from substantial cuts in education funding and has called on Congress to help bridge the digital divide here. A state survey found at least 300,000 students lack internet access or a computer at home. 

"Absent congressional action, our children are going to be adversely affected," he said. "Not simply this year, but for many years to come."

State officials estimate Michigan is facing a $3 billion shortfall in its upcoming budget, which takes effect Oct. 1. A revenue estimating conference will be held Aug. 24, when state officials will detail the current shortfall. 

Whitmer has released guidelines for how Michigan's K-12 schools should reopen in the fall and said her administration would provide $256 million to help districts implement local plans.

The governor's office has said Whitmer's top consideration in reopening schools will be protecting kids, educators and support staff.

On Friday, officials with Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said policy discussions involving schools remain ongoing.

Michigan education officials have asked for a federal waiver from state assessments in the 2020-21 school year, citing struggles among students with the long absence from school due to the virus. That request is still pending, Rice said Tuesday.

Rice said instead he favors a plan that will allow individual districts to choose from a number of benchmark assessments to provide some level of data to improve instruction.

Board member Michelle Fecteau raised questions over how the assessments would be administered and member Casandra Ulbrich said she was concerned about how valid or reliable the data would be if districts use varying assessments. 

"We have a tendency to make broad conclusions based on data like this that I don’t think the data was ever meant for," Ulbrich told Rice. "I want to be very hesitant about that."

Rice said the analysis would make the limitations clear and hopefully validate the adverse impacts of the pandemic. 

"I can see that it's not a perfect solution," he said. "I just don't know what perfect in a pandemic is."