'More questions than answers' as closure tests Michigan schools

Lansing — An unprecedented three-week shutdown of Michigan schools promise to highlight inequities in the state's education system and test lawmakers' willingness to change policies on funding and student assessments.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Thursday night that school buildings will be shuttered from Monday through April 5 to stem the spread of the coronavirus, which has been linked to 49 deaths nationally. Sixteen individuals in Michigan have tested presumptively positive, but there have been no deaths linked to the virus in the state.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a press conference on Thursday, March 12, 2020, and announces the closure of schools in Michigan from March 16, 2020, through April 5, 2020.

The closure announcement spurred a flurry of activity Friday at schools across Michigan as educators tried to determine how to help their students continue learning while away from the classroom for at least three weeks. It also inspired questions ranging from whether buildings can be opened to allow students to collect belongings to whether entire state laws need to be overhauled.

"Right now, we have more questions than answers," said Peter Spadafore of the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators, on Friday morning. "I think the Legislature is probably in the same boat. This is in uncharted territory for all of us."

Michigan schools have more than 200,000 employees and educate about 1.5 million students, according to the state's Center for Educational Performance and Information.

On Friday, the day before the three-week closure began, lawmakers, advocates and educators said some schools were more prepared to try to teach students over the break than others.

The state has to be conscious of what's best for public health and safety, said Adam Zemke, president of Launch Michigan, a coalition of groups that works to improve K-12 education in the state. But the closure undeniably will affect children's learning longer term, particularly students living in poverty with barriers to online learning, he said.

"At some point, the learning impact of these decisions will need to be addressed," Zemke said.

"It is our hope that this is done with an eye toward ensuring poorer students — in rural, urban and suburban schools — are not unfairly negatively affected, and that we as a state can turn this into an innovative opportunity to fix some of the equity gaps that have existed for far too long."

Bill Good, a spokesman for Ferndale Public Schools, said depending on the grade, students will be able to access lessons online and their teachers will be available via email or phone if they have questions.

The district will provide both online instruction modules as well as printed lesson packets for students who do not have internet access. In addition, it's lending some students cards that will let them access the internet through a mobile phone network.

Rural broadband a problem

The ability to move instruction online and educate students at home is not something all Michigan school districts have. Whitefish Township Community Schools, a remote rural district in the Upper Peninsula, will not be offering learning during the next three weeks, Superintendent Thomas McKee said.

McKee said 52% of students have internet at home, of that 30% have high speed. 

"I cannot justify giving online learning to our students when 48% do not have access," he said. "We have one-to-one computers so it’s not a device issue, it’s a rural broadband (issue)."

The extended closure is hard for teachers and students, he said.

“In rural areas, teachers are more than just content providers, they are guidance counselors, nurses, financial planners and sometimes stand-in parents,” McKee said. “This will be a long, unexpected break. The staff will be meeting Monday to discuss outreach to our students and also prepare our food boxes for our families.”

In the Berkley School District, students from across K-12 attended their last day of school for the month. Students in the Oakland County district have three weeks off school and a fourth week of scheduled spring break, which means they will not return to school until April 13.

School officials sent out Friday emails to parents, asking them to be patient and understanding while the district determined next steps. School officials said they do know all teachers will be using Google Classroom as the tool to deliver online instruction and resources.

Teachers will be working over the next several days to prepare lessons for students to access. For students who might not have computer access or internet access, the district is working on a plan to provide access to any students in need.

Grady Nolan,10, with his mom, Shannon, speaks about his last day of school at Angell Elementary in Berkley for the next month.

Teaching younger students exclusively online will take some creativity and some patience, said Shannon Nolan, parent of a student at Angell Elementary School in Berkley.

“We both work full-time, and we are certainly going to be juggling the next three weeks,” said Nolan, who has two children in the district. “We will rely on our eighth-grader to help us out, and we’ll just see. I think some things are going to be manageable and some things aren’t.”

Matt Kramer walked up to school to pick up his three children for their last day on Friday outside Angell Elementary School.

“My wife and I both work. We will rotate who will be home with them," Kramer said. "We have some flexibility of working from home."

State Sen. Wayne Schmidt, the Traverse City Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations School Aid Subcomittee, said there is no question that some schools would have more problems than others reaching students during the closure.

"Even the best schools are still going to have some challenges with this," Schmidt said.

Changing school calendar

The state budget that funds Michigan schools requires them to have 180 days "of pupil instruction." Six days can be forgiven for situations outside of the control of school authorities. In 2019, lawmakers provided additional exceptions because of unusually cold weather that led to mass school cancellations in the winter.

Michigan State Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis

State Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, chairman of the House Appropriations School Aid Subcommittee, said he voted against the cold weather exceptions in 2019 but would support exceptions this year because of the coronavirus closures. The exceptions would mean schools wouldn't have to add a full three weeks at the end of their calendars.

"This is the most appropriate situation you could have to do a blanket reprieve of days," Miller said.

Such a policy change could come as quickly as next week, Miller and others said Friday.

On Tuesday, the Michigan House approved a general supplemental spending bill and an education-focused supplemental spending bill. On Thursday, the Senate only approved the general bill. That means the education bill could still be revised and sent quickly to the governor.

The education spending bill could be used as a "vehicle" to solve emerging "problems" related to schools and the coronavirus, said Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"Obviously, things are rapidly changing," Hertel told reporters Thursday afternoon, hours before Whitmer announced the temporary school closures.

Remaining questions include whether the final bill will feature language that requires school districts to pay hourly workers who are off the job while schools are closed for three weeks.

There are thousands of individuals whose pay could be affected by the closure, said Steven Rzeppa, communications and political director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 25. The union represents bus drivers, cafeteria workers and paraprofessionals who work in schools.

"The school closings bring concerns that it may cause personal and financial hardship to hourly school support staff," said Lawrence Roehrig, president of AFSCME Council 25.

AFSCME hopes the Legislature approves language to guarantee the workers' pay "as soon as possible," said Rzeppa, who added the union was unsure whether members could apply for unemployment benefits because under current law they are still technically employed.

Asked about the pay issue, Miller noted he has a neighbor who is a single mother and a school bus driver.

"That’s a problem I really understand," said Miller, a former teacher.

Schmidt said he supported the idea of paying staff during the closure.

"This isn’t a snow day that’s something that’s been talked about contractually with individual workers and districts," Schmidt explained. "This is a state of emergency declared by the governor.”

This is an empty classroom at West Bloomfield High School on Friday. Students were asked to stay home, while educators used Friday to prepared to to teach students online due as a coronavirus precaution.

During a Thursday press conference, Whitmer said the state is also examining what to do about students who depend on school for two meals each day.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District said Friday it will offer "grab and go" breakfasts and lunches to students beginning Wednesday at 58 buildings. Breakfast will be served from 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday and lunch will be served from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Ferndale Public Schools also will continue to provide meals for students who get free or reduced-price lunch at school while the buildings are closed, Good said.

“But essentially what we will be doing is set up spots in open-air locations where families of students can come and pick up food,” he said. 

Will testing rules change?

There's the murkier topic of school assessments that help monitor student academic growth and inform education policy decisions. In many cases, the window for schools to offer the assessments cover April and May. In some cases, schools are losing three weeks of in-class instruction time directly ahead of the key assessments. In other cases, schools are losing two weeks because their spring break falls during the closure.

This image from the Michigan Department of Education shows current student testing windows for the coming months. Many of the windows open in April days after a three-week closure of Michigan schools because of the coronavirus is expected to end.

The state's M-STEP English Language Arts assessment is tied to a controversial law, approved in 2016, that stops third-graders from moving to fourth grade if they read a grade level behind beginning this school year.

Currently, the window for schools to offer third graders the M-STEP goes from April 27 through May 22, according to a state schedule. State Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, a former teacher, said she's requested bills to forgive the instruction days lost because of the three-week closure and do away with the mandatory retention requirement for this year because of the coronavirus.

Two or three weeks of lost instruction are too much to allow the retention policy to take effect, she said.

"It’s going to be a nightmare for testing," Polehanki said of the closure.

During the Thursday press conference, Whitmer said state officials will "grapple" with the question of what to do about standardized testing like other states are amid the outbreak of illness.

State Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills, said she supports eliminating as much of the testing as possible for the spring and using that time so schools can make up the lost classroom education time.

"I think that’s our first and easiest way to give them some time back," Bayer said.

Testing students after a three- or four-week break wouldn't be an accurate reflection of their abilities, said Jennifer Smith, director of government relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards. The testing would affect third-grade reading retention, teach evaluations and report cards.

However, Smith predicted the discussions about testing would come later.

"There are so many unknowns with this closure right now," she said. "To be perfectly frank, we’re worrying about the things we have to do right now."


Staff Writer Charles E. Ramirez contributed.