Jacques: Crisis reveals school leadership woes

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

When the Michigan Department of Education sent out a memo Friday telling schools, parents and students that any work they were doing from home wouldn’t count, you could almost hear the collective “WTH?” 

No one was happy, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who said she was “dismayed” by the guidance. 

With her shelter-in-place order to combat COVID-19, Whitmer has closed schools through April 13. It’s possible classes won’t be back in session at all this school year.

This is an empty classroom at West Bloomfield High School on Friday, March 13, 2020. Students were asked to stay home, while educators used Friday to prepared to to teach students online due as a coronavirus precaution.

But that doesn’t mean learning should stop. The loss of several months of classroom time could be devastating for students, some of whom may never fully catch up.

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Here’s what the MDE’s memo stated: “If an LEA [local district] or PSA [charter school] can meet all requirements to transition to virtual learning, would the time during the mandated closure be counted as instructional time?”

Answer: “No. There is no mechanism to earn instructional time during a period of mandated school closure.”

That infuriated school district officials around the state, many of whom had worked hard to transition to an online learning model. And parents who’d diligently worked with their children to make sure they were completing assignments — while trying to keep up with their own work — were similarly outraged. 

Tom Watkins, former state superintendent, says telling kids they were essentially doing busy work was the wrong message. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks during a press conference on Friday, March 20, 2020, to give an update on the state's response to COVID-19.

“If we can figure out how to feed children in this crisis, we can figure out how to educate them,” he says. 

Education leaders seem mired in what they feel they can’t do because of various regulations and laws, and aren’t focused on finding creative solutions to the very real problems at hand. 

“They are totally unprepared for this,” says Ben DeGrow, education policy director at the Mackinac Center. “It’s sad.”

He says other states have proactively set up online systems in case of snow days or emergencies. Indiana, for example, has “eLearning days,” and they’ve tackled issues of attendance, instruction and equity of access to the internet and equipment.

Michigan should have been ready, too.

The only schools fully prepared for this situation are the 14 cyber charter schools that often are the target of budget cuts and unfair criticism. Now all districts could learn from them.

The mess that we are seeing play out is a symptom of Michigan’s failed education governance model. The governor doesn’t have the ability to appoint the state board of education or superintendent, which puts Michigan in a small minority of states with this setup. With no clear leadership structure, there also isn’t a clear chain of command. So in situations like this, everyone looks to someone else for solutions. 

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For instance, state Superintendent Michael Rice claims he can’t issue seat-time waivers to allow for the online learning to count toward state-mandated instructional time. He says he needs the Legislature to step in. Yet state law gives him that authority, and the state superintendent uses it every year to grant waiver requests to districts seeking to start before Labor Day or move to a year-long calendar. 

State House leadership, however, is saying Whitmer could issue an executive order and clarify that virtual learning counts. Technically, she could do this, since she’s declared an emergency. 

Whitmer’s office wouldn’t confirm whether she is planning such an order. 

In an email, Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said: “This situation has changed rapidly over the past weeks. We do not know what the future will hold. Still, the Whitmer administration is committed to ensuring the needs of students, parents, and families are met as we navigate these uncharted waters.”

Someone needs to step up and offer schools and families some clarity. 

Casandra Ulbrich, president of the State Board of Education, defended the MDE’s decision, saying not all districts are able to deliver the same level of online learning. 

“It comes down to a fairness issue,” she said. “It’s not fair to allow districts with resources to count days and other districts trying to get resources not qualify to count those days.”

What’s not fair is discouraging districts from being proactive with their students.

Tom McMillin and Nikki Snyder, the lone Republicans on the state board, have expressed their concern with the MDE’s stance. They think school districts should submit online education plans to the department, and that the MDE should issue waivers for schools employing thoughtful, innovative approaches.

“Why stop 100% of districts, when 80% can do it now?” says McMillin. “Let’s allow as many as we can to keep going, and offer more time and resources to focus on those who can’t get it done.” 

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques