By Brenda Ortega
MEA Voice Editor
If schools remain closed for the rest of the year, educators at the local level should decide what learning opportunities are most important to provide for their students and how best to deliver them, says MEA President Paula Herbart.
The union has been advocating for local control of local plans with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as she has wrestled with questions about whether to extend statewide closures of schools through the end of this school year in response to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.
Student and community needs and resources vary widely across school districts, Herbart told hundreds who tuned into a virtual Education Town Hall on Tuesday evening hosted by Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown) and Rep. Abdullah Hammoud (D-Dearborn).
“We’ve been fighting for that local influence of community members to develop their local plans; that’s really important,” Herbart said. “We know that they understand their communities better than we do at the state level.”
Since schools were first closed across Michigan on March 16, educators from every job category have continued to serve their communities in many ways – most notably by helping to ramp up summer food programs and reaching out to students at home with emotional support and extended learning choices.
“Educators haven’t stopped,” Herbart said. “We’re talking about educators being someone that can ground and provide a sense of normalcy for communities, and that is the most important role that educators are playing right now – of being a touchstone for students to feel safe and secure, which is so critical in times like these.”
Other priorities that union leaders have advanced in talks with the governor, legislators, and state superintendent include continuing state funding of schools, paying all school employees through the end of the school year, granting full retirement credit for the year, waiving seat time and standardized testing requirements, ensuring graduation and advancement of students, amending the teacher evaluation process, extending certification deadlines, and more.
“Those are the kinds of issues we’re all trying collectively to address,” AFT Michigan President David Hecker said during the forum, “so we have a safe situation for everyone, we get the best education we can for people, school employees get paid, and no one gets penalized in any way because of COVID-19.”
Earlier in the day, Whitmer said in an interview with M-Live that she had not decided whether to extend school closures beyond the last planned end date of April 15. A decision will be announced on Thursday.
Many issues remain to be worked out, she said, but there is no question that schools needed to be closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus wreaking havoc across the globe. As of Tuesday night, Michigan ranked third in the country in the number of deaths from COVID-19.
“We have 1.5 million kids in Michigan who are in our schools. We have a virus that’s ravaging our state, and taking our kids out of school was absolutely the right decision,” she said.
“But now we have to come up with a solution that meets their educational needs. And with the variety of districts that we have – they have different challenges, they have different access to resources. And so all of these are pieces of the issue that we have to solve.”
Join us for another teletown hall with the governor! Members of MEA, AFT Michigan, and AFSCME can RSVP to join the call on Thursday, April 2, at 1:30 p.m. with Gov. Whitmer regarding the coronavirus outbreak and its impact on public education.
Public health experts say the epidemic remains three to four weeks out from reaching its peak numbers of infections and deaths in the state, after which those numbers hopefully will slowly taper off. Those expert projections assume people are following Whitmer’s March 23 directive to stay home except to get food or other necessities.
While some people have called for the governor to hold off on closing schools through the end of the school year and instead make decisions in two-week increments, Herbart said stability is important for students.
If everyone knows what will happen, school districts can make plans and people can grieve the loss of traditional milestones – such as graduations and prom – and move on. “If we only make decisions every two weeks by two weeks by two weeks, everybody lives in a state of limbo and then really nothing can happen,” Herbart said.
The current crisis is a public health emergency first and foremost, said Rep. Camilleri, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee. “We need to make sure that our students and our educators are safe,” Camilleri said.
Beyond that, most conversations at the state level have revolved around equity, he said. About one-third of students in Michigan do not have access to digital devices and/or internet service at home.
“How do we make sure that all students have access to the materials and learning that they need? But we also know that given the circumstances it is not going to be possible for every student to receive everything that they need, so how do we meet students where they are and provide those services? What creative ways can we come up with?”
The global pandemic has strained resources and systems, Rep. Hammoud said: “The vulnerabilities of our education system have really been exposed in many ways, whether it has to do with equitable funding or with the distribution of resources. As this continues to progress, we will identify more problems that need to be addressed at the state level.”
Other questions surround students who receive special education services that require differentiation of lessons or face-to-face interventions. Already educators have held required meetings virtually on digital platforms and sent packets of materials home in many cases.
The situation is fluid and changing daily, and student needs must be balanced with safety measures that are required to keep people from becoming sick and spreading the virus, Herbart and Hecker agreed.
“Special ed is probably the hardest piece to grapple with because of the needs those students have and our responsibility to meet those needs,” Hecker said. “Those discussions are continuing.”
The fact is that education delivered remotely won’t ever be able to replace face-to-face learning, but especially now amid an unprecedented situation, Herbart said. Educators are also at home with their children in many cases, trying to stay safe and dealing with the same problems that other parents are facing.
The types of educational experiences and expectations that educators provide will be “very different” from what is done in classrooms, Herbart said.
Community access cable television and public channels are one way that education leaders have discussed to deliver content to students, Herbart said. Simply getting quality, high-interest books into the hands of children without access to reading materials at home is another example of work that educators and communities are doing.
In coming weeks, the people of Michigan will see friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances become sick, and many will know someone who dies from COVID-19. Mental wellness may be a more important focus than academics as the health crisis escalates in Michigan, she added.
“Educators are the people that students will go to to talk about those experiences,” Herbart said. “We see that all the time in the regular school year and we are going to see that all throughout the summer. We need to make sure that trusted adults are available to students in ways that are meaningful to them.”
Everyone will need to extend understanding and grace to those on the front lines who are doing the best they can with the information and resources that are available, Herbart concluded – to which Hammoud replied with gratitude.
“Educators, you are amazing,” Hammoud said. “Thank you all for what you have done. Immediately when this pandemic started you were the first to come up with innovative solutions and put our children and our students first. There will never be enough thanks for that.”
A former teacher, Camilleri said he originally ran for office because he believed educators deserved a voice and students in need required an advocate. He never imagined a crisis would emerge that would exacerbate existing inequalities and place health and safety above all else.
“Just know there are other former educators in the state House – like myself – who are on the front lines working with everybody in the community to make sure that we are crafting solutions with equity and accountability and responsibility in mind,” he said.
You can watch the full townhall here.