Looking ahead to another fall of pandemic-related disruptions, Michigan has entrusted local education officials with the responsibility to decide COVID-19 policies and how to spend the bulk of federal COVID-19 relief funds. While school districts have yet to spend most of these large sums, many parents are left unsupported and searching for suitable learning options.
Many district officials are confounded by COVID-19 protocols and the difficulty of trying to cater to families with differing levels of risk tolerance. Even as a groundswell of parents make a concerted push for districts to steer clear of mask and testing mandates, some areas are now seeing an organized response demanding the opposite. While state health officials urge everyone in school to wear masks, they have stopped short of issuing a mandate like they did last academic year. School district leaders are trapped in the middle.
The Democratic-controlled State Board of Education passed a resolution supporting local districts’ “ability to make scientifically informed decisions including mask mandates.” But at least some local leaders would prefer the decision be taken out of their hands. “If there was one policy across the state, we wouldn't have to argue about it,” said Steve Matthews, superintendent of Novi Community Schools. “Having each district try to make its own decision pits districts against each other.”
Local health departments in both Kent County and Ottawa County are relieving school districts of some pressure by placing a sort of ultimatum on parents. The two essentially identical orders impose extensive quarantine requirements for children who come near someone who tests positive for the coronavirus. But those requirements don’t apply to students who are fully vaccinated or who wear masks.
On the other side of the state, Genesee County health officials say all students up through grade six should wear face coverings at school, at least until after a COVID-19 vaccine is available to them. It isn’t clear how the order will be enforced, or what the decision will do to fall enrollments that determine a large portion of local public school funding. Homeschooling, cyber schooling and education pods may be options for some families. But others will have to work with their local schools to figure out how to navigate COVID-19 policies and their related consequences.
Local leaders could be creative and allow different schools within the same district to enact different protocols and give parents the ability to choose their preferred environment. School boards could also benefit from opening more slots to welcome nonresident students through Schools of Choice. Tight timelines challenge the logistics of such potential efforts, however, even though school systems have unprecedented funds at their disposal.
One year after recording an all-time high in per-pupil funding, Michigan’s local education officials still have nearly all of their extra federal COVID-19 money left to spend. Most of the initial round of relief funds went to districts that operated fully remotely for most or all of last school year. As the lion’s share of the money rolls in, many local education leaders struggle to know how to use it all. That’s especially true for a handful of districts that take in more extra dollars than a typical year’s worth of total funding.
The three federal relief packages together provide roughly $6 billion to the state’s schools. Over $5 billion comes through the main source: the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund. As of June, Michigan reported to the U.S. Department of Education that only 4% of the ESSER Fund had been expended. Districts must commit to allocate all remaining funds no later than September 2024.
Meanwhile, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer blocked the Legislature’s attempt to allocate a tiny share of the federal funds for scholarships to parents of elementary students who need help catching up in reading. All of Michigan’s COVID-19 dollars have bankrolled education systems and agencies. With no direct support and facing a host of local pandemic-related challenges, many frustrated families are left in the lurch.
As back-to-school pressures mount, financial cushions protect the education system. Now more than ever, though, local officials must seek to honor parents, and state leaders must find the will to fund and empower parents to choose the mode of schooling they believe is best for their children.
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