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Opinion: Tough decisions ahead for Michigan school leaders

Tom Watkins

I feel for the parents, teachers, principals, school superintendents and boards members at the state and local levels attempting to make appropriate decisions around teaching and learning in the midst of this global pandemic.  

Their decisions are compounded by the confusing and downright muddled recommendations coming from the U.S. Department of Education and from President Donald Trump.

Does the president understand that federal education funds are a small, yet important component that support some of our nation’s poorest and most vulnerable children? 

Opening our schools is necessary. But opening in ways that protect our children, teachers, support personnel within the walls of school buildings and in the broader community is essential. 

Lorna Bryant, a custodian with RNA Facilities Management, mops the floor inside Renaissance high school, which was being cleaned due to the corona virus, April 2, 2020.  Every classroom was emptied of furniture for the cleaning.

Parents are understandably torn between reopening schools and keeping their children safe. They certainly long for the time their children can return to the classroom without fearing for their safety and worrying about them bringing the virus home along with their homework.

Teachers want to teach. They are also rightly concerned that they will not have the necessary equipment to keep themselves and children safe while working in a COVID-19 Petri dish daily. 

Keeping a K-12 school or school district closed is a painful decision. Our schools dispense not just education, but food and other social services that many children and families desperately rely on, although many districts have continued food distribution.

I commend Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for engaging with educational stakeholders to develop sensible reopening plans. Her guidelines are not a one-size-fits all but are based on science, public health protocols, facts, and the needs of students, parents and society while remaining flexible in meeting local needs.  

COVID-19 has been both a fire alarm and an accelerant to changes that have been needed in our schools the past two decades. Policymakers need to find resources to finance the existing system created in a different era or make the painful and necessary structural changes that have been avoided for some time. We have a chance to be intentional and overcome these systemic failures of the past.

Consider:

►Do we really need more than 500 local districts, 50-plus countywide school districts, 200-plus charter schools/districts with the corresponding costs? Would consolidation or countywide school districts allow for the redirection of more resources to the classroom and address equity issues?

►Every child should have access to the learning opportunities that will help them reach their full potential. Yet we know this is not the case in far too many of our schools today. Some students need more support than others, but we provide little or no funding differential to recognize this reality. This is as relevant to rural districts as it is to urban districts.

►We should use technology to digitalize and personalize learning. Some of our schools have embraced this technology. Sadly, however, few schools have adopted the full potential that technology can offer schools and children. Students are facing an uncertain future that defies predictability. By not being ready to fully engage students outside of the four walls of the school, we are missing a valuable teachable moment.

Michigan must lead in the 21st century by casting off the anchors, archaic laws, policies and beliefs that bind us to a 20th-century education model and build one that works for all of our students.

There remains a significant level of fear, denial and protection of the status quo around schools opening in the fall. Understandable from desperate and frustrated parents. Expected from those within the educational cocoon being battered from all sides.

Our leaders can make this crisis work to produce change needed to position Michigan to thrive going forward. Staying even with the status quo means falling behind. 

Declining public funding along with the COVID accelerant should be the impetus for a do over: reimagining public education that helps assure our children are prepared for their future. Will we?

Tom Watkins is an international business and educational consultant. He has served the citizens of Michigan as state mental health director and also state superintendent of schools.