The Lansing School District recently became the first in Michigan to announce it will continue full-time remote learning to start the fall term. As schools across the state reconfigure the upcoming academic year, students should also have the ability to make their own adjustments so they can pursue what works best for them.
The Lansing State Journal reports that local officials intend to make live online instruction, complete with teachers, “as close to the typical face-to-face classroom experience as possible.” The district’s decision to close campuses, at least through early November, represents a more cautious approach than Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has urged. Her 63 pages of guidance require school buildings to close down again, but only if she determines that their region is in phase 3 of her safety plan. No place in the state is currently under that level of restriction.
In a recent statewide survey, most Michigan parents favored the governor’s initial decision to close school buildings in March due to concerns for health and safety. Of the remote education that followed, 64% believed it was detrimental to student learning. A June poll found a majority of parents expressed support for most hygiene and distancing protocols proposed as conditions of reopening schools. Only face mask requirements for younger children elicited widespread skepticism.
It’s clear that for a variety of reasons, families have different levels of risk tolerance about gathering students back into school buildings. Lansing’s school board president acknowledged that it’s “impossible to keep everyone happy.” Other Michigan districts considering whether to follow suit are struggling with the same challenge. Some of their counterparts in places from Oregon to South Carolina are trying to accommodate a range of needs, offering families various combinations of in-person, virtual and hybrid options.
The best way to help students meaningfully progress in their learning this year is to increase flexibility. That means the state should have less restrictive rules on calendar days and measuring student attendance, and schools should be able to shift between virtual and regular classroom instruction. A bill package moving through the state Legislature would make these and other changes.
It’s not just local education officials who need flexibility, however. Families also need maneuverability to secure the kind of educational program their children need. Unfortunately, they are caught in a national political crossfire. On one side, President Donald Trump is pressuring schools to reopen buildings. In response, teachers unions have called for a major boost in federal funding, and some have made more extreme demands about what must happen before their members return to the classroom.
Officials are ill-equipped to decide whether to close or open school buildings for an entire state or nation. In the same way, districts are unwise to try to serve all students well through one mode of learning. The students who want to be back in a school building this fall should have a safe option to attend. But they may have some other needs and priorities that may not be met in their current district.
If districts do not reopen buildings, or if they struggle to provide online instruction that students need to catch up or stay on track, some families with financial means will organize their own micro-schools, private co-ops or homeschool pods. That is their prerogative as the primary decision-makers concerning their children’s education. But opportunities to adapt and take charge of learning should not be limited to families who can afford it.
Parents shouldn’t be forced to pay a price for poor service any more than schools should be forced to open their doors. Families should be able to benefit directly from a portion of federal education aid. Yet Congress, wrapped up in a heated election year, will likely leave them waiting for an agreement to provide student-centered funding.
Michigan lawmakers could step in to adopt a couple different policies to help make sure families have the options they need. First, they could suspend the statewide enrollment cap on cyber schools, which are public charter schools that provide full-time online instruction. As most districts struggled to deliver a remote educational program, cyber schools continued teaching, with very little disruption. These schools need legal authority to have the number of virtual “seats” required to be an effective outlet for transferring students. Unlike most district schools, they are experienced in providing online instruction.
Second, lawmakers should make funds available to families that opt to do their own schooling from home. This could come at a substantially smaller per-pupil cost than the foundation allowance that the state guarantees to public schools. In addition to saving money, it would let families move smoothly away from conventional schooling. The funds could come either from a direct legislative appropriation or from refundable tax credits, and then be deposited in a special account to pay for educational services and materials.
Pennsylvania’s proposed Back on Track Education Savings Accounts could serve as a model, though in Michigan, they could only be used on at-home learning expenses. Our state’s 50-year-old anti-aid constitutional amendment still restricts state funds from supporting enrollment in a nonpublic school.
The unprecedented educational challenge before us demands support for true local decision-making that isn’t stymied by locked schoolhouse doors. Parents need more diverse options so their children aren’t left out in the cold.
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