Editorial: Start new school year as soon as it's safe
Thanks to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan’s K-12 schools finally have some certainty about the remainder of the school year. After weeks of wondering how long the shutdown would continue and whether their work to reach students would count, now they have some answers. That’s progress.
But the governor should go further to ask districts to open as soon as safely possible and to implement a year-round calendar that could help make up for the long absence from the classroom — and to prepare for future shutdowns should they become necessary.
Schools have also received flexibility from the federal government, with U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos granting states waivers from testing requirements and other regulations while they deal with the virus.
In an executive order Thursday, Whitmer outlined several key points. First is the fact she’s ordered the state’s 900 traditional and charter districts to stay closed for the rest of the school year, unless the state’s fight against the coronavirus changes swiftly. That seems unlikely at this point, given the latest projections.
Even more importantly, though, Whitmer offered guidance as to what districts should do in the interim to implement an online learning platform — or whatever makes the most sense for individual districts.
This was something State Superintendent Michael Rice refused to do, even though has the legal authority to grant seat-time waivers to offer schools flexibility. The Michigan Department of Education had frustrated districts when it issued a memo last month telling them any efforts they were making to teach children wouldn’t count toward “instructional hours.”
Now the governor has stepped in, letting schools know this work will indeed count.
According to a statement from the governor’s office, the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators and the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers are putting together a “learning plan” template for schools to use in forming their individual plans for how to proceed. Those applications will be available April 3.
The plans must be approved by intermediate school districts or by a charter school’s authorizer. Whitmer is also encouraging districts to partner to create joint plans.
Under the governor’s order, districts will have the ability to adopt a year-round, balanced calendar for the current school year, and they’ll also be able to start the following school year prior to Labor Day without a waiver from the state superintendent. State law misguidedly mandates schools start following the holiday, as a boon to the tourism industry.
School officials welcomed Whitmer's announcement, as they now can put together a game plan for the rest of the school year and beyond.
“It provides the clarity people needed,” says Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.
It also preserves local control by allowing districts to put together learning plans that address the needs of their respective communities.
Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he’s onboard with finding a way to make online instruction work in Detroit — including working with the business community to make sure all families have access to the internet and necessary equipment.
Now that Whitmer has given them the green light, it’s up to local districts to think creatively about how to educate their students in a challenging time.