In a typical June, most Michigan students would be cleaning out their desks or lockers, in-person graduation ceremonies would be held, and almost no one would be asking what the coming school year would look like.
But the uncertainties of the current pandemic have unsettled familiar routines and raised new questions. School leaders are left to navigate a diverse assortment of parent expectations and student needs, while continuing to wait for guidance from state leaders. Last week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced she had appointed 25 people to the Return to School Advisory Council, an entity created on May 15 by one of her numerous executive orders.
Critics have raised concerns about the state’s delayed response to the question of how schools will reopen. A national survey conducted last month for the Foundation for Excellence in Education underscores those concerns, revealing that many states were already ahead of Michigan in planning for next year. Just in recent days, states from Indiana to North Carolina to Oregon have released official guidance.
To some extent, uncertainty about shifting public health requirements frustrates Michigan’s efforts to forge definitive plans for 2020-21. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges schools to arrange classrooms and lunch rooms according to social distancing requirements, and for children as young as 3 to wear cloth face coverings.
Some parents bristle strongly at the notion of having their children comply. Others are fearful of sending their children back to a school building under almost any circumstances. Still others are worried about their livelihoods if schools stay closed. Nearly half of Michigan parents told pollsters they need school buildings to safely reopen so they can work at a job that pays their bills. The wide array of conflicting concerns suggests that schools cannot afford to take a one-size-fits-all approach.
A pair of national surveys reveals that many families are open to change how their children are educated. The American Federation for Children found that 40% are more likely than before to try some form of home-based education. A Public School Options poll yielded a similar result, but it seems unlikely that so many students will actually leave their familiar brick-and-mortar school to try home schooling or digital learning full-time. Even if only the 9% who are “not at all comfortable” returning this fall opt out, however, that would represent a dramatic shift for how many schools budget for and deliver education.
There are already a range of options within public schooling. Michigan families have access to a variety of tuition-free, full-time online programs, including 14 different cyber schools. Teachers, home educators and community members in a small number of districts have partnered together to provide a mixture of on-site and virtual elective courses that home schoolers and the district’s enrolled students may both take.
Several blended learning models offer students a mixture of on-site and at-home learning. One example is Clintondale High School’s flipped classrooms, which use in-person meetings for teachers to mentor students and help with projects rather than lecture and present new material. FlexTech High School, with three different Michigan charter campuses, gives older students more freedom and responsibility to complete academic work and meet with teachers outside the regimented bell schedule.
Pandemic-induced planning has pushed schools accustomed to standard instructional delivery to consider similar practices. The Detroit News pointed to Ann Arbor Public Schools as one major district that is floating the idea of a hybrid model. Others are also figuring out how to host students on campus for shorter or fewer days, while helping students make the most of opportunities to learn at home or elsewhere. It can be difficult for schools to make such transitions under normal circumstances, without the added pressure from COVID-19.
To assist, state leaders can increase schools’ flexibility by revisiting regulations that narrowly define student attendance. They can also encourage schools to use remote instruction when inclement weather or social distancing measures occur. Indiana’s eLearning Day Program and Kentucky’s Non-Traditional Instruction Program enabled many districts in those states to adapt more effectively to building shutdowns. To help keep schools on track, Michigan schools should be required to test and report results for students in math and reading as they return this fall.
Even if they have added flexibility, local school systems will not satisfy everyone with their plans to reopen. Families feeling left out, as well as those who have struggled through recent attempts at distance learning, deserve more options. State lawmakers should allow middle and high school students in brick-and-mortar schools to take more online courses from a larger selection of providers.
Parents faced with covering unexpected costs to provide quality at-home learning, meanwhile, could use some relief. Congress should increase families’ ability to address the learning needs of students caught in the gaps. Steps to do that might include unlocking 529 education savings plans, or creating emergency accounts for lower-income families or those with special-needs students, both of which could underwrite these expenses.
As educators, parents and students try to adapt to the prospects of a different kind of school year ahead, policymakers should give local decision-makers more room to maneuver.
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