Michigan's superintendent calls for increasing required school days

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michael Rice, Michigan's state superintendent, wants lawmakers to increase the number of required school days in the wake of COVID-19, saying "more time is the clearest need" for students.

Rice made the comment during a Tuesday joint hearing of the House and Senate education committees. The meeting came as schools across the state grapple with how to offer in-person instruction and effectively teach students amid fears of a spreading virus.

"Students and staff need more days coming out of a pandemic," Rice said. "The state Legislature should raise the minimum number of days to underscore the need for more time.”

New state superintendent Dr. Michael Rice, superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools is seen in his office in Kalamazoo on Wednesday, May 15, 2019.

Michigan schools have been required to provide at least 180 days of instruction. But that number was too low even before COVID-19 hit, Rice said.

With the virus overhauling education and leaving dozens of districts with only online learning for nearly a year, most students are receiving less instruction time than in any similar period previously, the superintendent said.

Districts need to consider whether all students need additional instruction time in the next school year and whether certain groups, like specific grades or vulnerable students, need even more time. He didn't identify how many days should be added to the current requirement.

"Some districts will need to add time for all of their students above a statutorily raised state minimum," Rice said.

With experts and lawmakers acknowledging that in-person learning is more effective than virtual learning, a debate is brewing in Lansing over how to get more students in more classrooms. Michigan's COVID-19 infection rates have been dropping, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has encouraged all districts to at least offer in-person instruction by March 1.

Last week, Michigan reported 11,172 new COVID-19 cases, the lowest weekly case total in 15 weeks.

"The value of in-person learning for our kids is immeasurable, and we must do everything we can to help them get a great education safely," Whitmer said on Jan. 8. “Over the last 10 months, medical experts and epidemiologists have closely followed the data and have learned that schools can establish a low risk of transmission by ensuring that everyone wears a mask and adopting careful infection prevention protocols."

While Whitmer has publicly pressured districts to reopen classrooms, Republicans who control the state Legislature have proposed tying additional funding to districts offering in-person learning by Feb. 15.

On Thursday, House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, said his goal "is to get kids in the classroom as fast as possible."

For January, 35% of Michigan's 833 school districts planned to offer only remote or virtual learning, according to an analysis by Michigan State University's Education Policy Innovation Collaborative. Some of the fully remote districts previously offered in-person learning but stopped after COVID-19 case rates jumped in late November.

Along with a debate over how schools should move forward, Tuesday's legislative hearing also featured frustration over mask use and audio visual problems similar to those that have occurred in many homes during virtual learning. At multiple points, Rice, who appeared virtually, had issues hearing lawmakers' questions.

Early in the meeting, Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, a former teacher, said she decided not to physically attend the meeting because of the "unwillingness of my colleagues" to wear masks. Multiple House Republicans did not wear masks during the meeting, including House Education Chairwoman Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township.

"We all have to be committed to mask wearing," Polehanki said.

State Rep. Darrin Camilleri, D-Brownstown Township, tweeted that he left the meeting early "because one of my maskless Republican colleagues kept coughing."

In addition to calling for more school time in the next year, Rice also pushed for lower class sizes for young students to help with early literacy, more counselors and nurses in schools and increasing access to technology.

Senate Education Chairwoman Lana Theis, R-Brighton, contended that extending the school calendar and shrinking class sizes were up to local decisions.

Rice said he wasn't just calling for the changes through the Legislature but for local districts to reflect on the matters as well.

cmauger@detroitnews.com