Michigan Senate bill would let districts decide in-person or virtual teaching

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — In a rare Saturday session, the Michigan Senate approved bills that allow schools to choose whether to meet in-person during the COVID-19 pandemic and require them to ensure interactions between teachers and students happen if they meet virtually.

The policies, which also include requirements for benchmark assessments and monthly reconfirmations of schools' plans, are part of a negotiated agreement between the GOP-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The main bill in the package passed the Senate 23-15.

Brenda Ryan, who teaches in Detroit, participates in a demonstration outside the Michigan Capitol on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020.

The bills' Senate passage comes during a statewide debate over whether it's safe for schools to meet in person as the coronavirus pandemic rolls on. Some of the state's largest districts, including Grand Rapids and Lansing, have already announced they'll start the year with only virtual learning.

The new legislation will go before the state House on Monday.

Just before the votes Saturday, the state's two largest teachers' unions, the Michigan Education Association ad the American Federation of Teachers, issued a joint statement in support of the bills.

The bills "provide students, parents, educators and districts both certainty and flexibility on key issues as we head into the 2020-21 school year," said Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association, and David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan.

But school districts are voicing concerns about how they'll balance handling the pandemic, financial uncertainty and the new requirements for benchmark assessments, monthly meetings on their reopening plans and tracking interactions between teachers and students.

The Michigan Association of School Boards and the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators asked lawmakers on Friday to pause considering the proposals to allow for more feedback.

The bills essentially tie 75% of schools' enrollment counts to the previous year amid fears that attendance could drop significantly. Many districts were hoping that their counts, which determine their funding levels, would be tied 100% to last school year.

"If the kids in Michigan are your priority, schools in Michigan should have been held harmless," argued Richard Machesky, superintendent of Troy schools.

The Senate usually meets on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. The rare Saturday session occurred after scheduling conflicts and Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, found out he tested positive for COVID-19 on Aug. 2, leading to session cancellations in early August.

As the Senate met inside the Capitol on Saturday, a group of educators demonstrated on the lawn outside. Teachers called on Whitmer to use her emergency executive powers to bar schools from meeting in person when they reopen in less than three weeks.

The governor's policies are currently in conflict, argued Hussein Beydoun, 33, a high school teacher in Dearborn. She's banned social gatherings of more than 10 people but plans to allow schools to meet in-person, he said.

"It is extremely unsafe to have hundreds of people in an enclosed spaced," Beydoun said.

The governor and members of the Legislature negotiated the bills that passed the Senate on Saturday. Republicans originally introduced the package, which initially would have required schools to at least offer in-person learning for students in kindergarten through the fifth grade. State officeholders dropped that requirement from the package.

Under the revised legislation, the majority of schools' official student counts, which helps determine their funding levels, will be based on last year's tally. Schools also won't have to meet normal hour requirements for instructions.

"The bipartisan bills we passed today reflect our commitment to ensuring students receive a quality education and empowers schools to make decisions that are in the best interest of students this fall," tweeted Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake.

The bills implement a variety of accountability measures and other requirements that have irked some school leaders. Districts have to administer benchmark assessments within the first nine weeks of the year.

Machesky of Troy Schools said it's possible that some districts will only be able to offer those assessment in person, depending on the assessment tools they use.

At a rally outside the Michigan Capitol on Saturday, educators called on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to require schools begin the 2020-2021 year with only virtual learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Districts would also be required to provide two two-way interactions per week between at least 75% of their students and those students’ teachers and have to reconfirm their plans for the year — whether they're having in-person instruction or online instruction — every 30 days, continuing a debate that's been in divisive in many districts.

The "governor and legislature abandoned leadership responsibilities and avoided challenges from unions, charters and parents and simply dumped everything on boards and superintendents," tweeted Nikolai Vitti, the superintendent in Detroit.

A group called the Michigan Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators organized the demonstration outside the Capitol, where one participant's sign read, "Our students are not a science fair project." While officials had months to plan for schools' reopening, the bills were put together at the "11th hour" without input from teachers, said Beydoun, the Dearborn teacher.

Retired teacher Victor Gibson, 66, of Detroit also attended on Saturday. Michigan should start with all virtual learning and see what the COVID-19 metrics say as the year goes on, he said.

"See if we can actually get a hold of this pandemic,"Gibson said. "See if we can actually get ahead of this thing."