The experience of Michigan public school students during the COVID-19 pandemic stoked frustrations for parents and fueled interest in finding different approaches to education. The suspension of in-person schooling in the spring of 2020 and the online programs that replaced it gave parents a front-row view of the educational services provided to their children.
Many Michigan parents were not satisfied with this remote instruction. Most endured the disruption in hopes of returning to a more normal schooling experience in the fall. Others made significant reassessments, either of the educational value provided by their local school district or of their child’s aptitude for self-paced online learning, or both. Some took advantage of the options allowed under Michigan law to enroll in established online programs, to switch to another public or private school, or even to pursue homeschooling.
The COVID-19 pandemic further highlighted a public school infrastructure that was unprepared to adapt its rigid rules and practices to this latest challenge. A March 20, 2020, memorandum from the Michigan Department of Education told local school officials that instructional hours could not be counted while schools were closed, discouraging schools to develop and prepare long-term distance learning options. Subsequent executive orders from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer established procedures to guarantee district funding even while the state forced schools to close and services had to be provided remotely[*]
Confronted by unforeseen dilemmas, state officials adhered to institutional priorities that began to increasingly conflict with the needs of students and families. Some local districts and charter schools responded more nimbly than others and were better able to mitigate the negative effects of remote learning during the state lockdown. Online charter schools continued their programming without any significant interruption, for instance. But on the whole, the education system’s weaknesses and limitations to adjust were clearly exposed.
Uncertainties mounted through the summer months as many state and local officials struggled to plan for a 2020-21 school year that would look different than any before. One area where the resulting mad scramble took its toll was on the availability of effective online education. Demand skyrocketed for courses through Michigan Virtual, the state’s subsidized online course provider, but it struggled to find and hire enough qualified teachers. By Sept. 1, before most districts began the new school year, most Michigan Virtual courses were fully subscribed and unavailable for additional enrollments. Online charter schools attracted more pupils too, with some of the largest reaching their enrollment caps.[†]
Some Michigan students were left with no options in 2020-21 beyond the remote instruction their home district provided. To their credit, many districts provided families with options for different modes of learning: face-to-face, full-time virtual, or a hybrid of the two. This required parents to closely assess and compare their schooling options, something most are not accustomed to doing. While many districts rose to the challenge, some parents were left without any opportunity to choose what they felt suited their children’s needs best. Others faced an all-or-nothing dilemma, with significant downsides to both options.
Based on this experience, policymakers should identify and break down barriers that prevent Michigan families from accessing learning paths that meet their children’s needs. Parents should be empowered to assemble more the building blocks that will construct a more promising educational future for their children.
This paper proposes that Michigan adopt a more flexible funding and learning program, or Flex Learning, that enhances the ability of students, under the direction of parents or guardians, to customize their paths to graduation. The strategy would offer greater access to an array of individual courses and learning opportunities from different public education providers, while providing more precise and accurate assessment of content mastery and accountability than is available through traditional methods.
[*]These include Executive Orders 2020-35, 2020-65 and 2020-142. “Executive Order 2020-35” (State of Michigan, April 2, 2020), https://perma.cc/PL4L-DR3U; “Executive Order 2020-65” (State of Michigan, April 30, 2020), https://perma.cc/SHS7-FFEB; “Executive Order 2020-142” (State of Michigan, June 30, 2020), https://perma.cc/9HW7-LWES.
[†]Data collected by author, searching online enrollment pages on Sept. 28, 2020. Six of Michigan’s 15 cyber schools, representing more than two-thirds of the group’s total fall 2019 enrollment, reported that they had reached the caps established in the respective contracts with their charter authorizers, and were adding students to wait lists rather than accepting more new students. Michigan’s growing demand for full-time online public education providers mirrored the experience of some other states. See Mark Lieberman, “COVID-19 Fuels Big Enrollment Increases in Virtual Schools” (Education Week, Sept. 3, 2020), https://perma.cc/T84N-2AT4.