EAST LANSING — Following more than 15,000 survey responses from educators and discussions about the needs of both students and school employees, today MEA announced three key priorities the state’s largest education union feels must be fully addressed as we look toward safely returning to school buildings this fall.
As our mission indicates, we believe strongly the learning environments of students and the working environments of school employees are inextricably linked,” said MEA President Paula Herbart, who is among those serving on Gov. Whitmer’s Return to Learn Advisory Council. “We’re committed to ensuring that educators’ voices are heard in this process and their expertise, along with that of public health officials, guides decision-making about how and when to return to in-person learning.”
MEA’s three priorities – which each include specific key topics to address – cover student, family and educator safety for in-person learning; meeting the full and diverse needs of students in a “new normal”; and funding education to avoid pandemic-driven budget cuts while addressing new, higher operating costs.
1) We must make every effort to SAFELY return to in-person learning this fall, with the proper investments in both equipment and technology to keep students, families and employees safe. To that end, we need:
• Development and enforcement of clear, consistent, and transparent standards for how to prevent and, if necessary, respond to future COVID-19 outbreaks in school buildings.1
• Decisions about safety measures, like personal protective equipment, to be based on health professionals’ advice.2
• Smaller class sizes to enforce social distancing.3
• Adequate one-to-one technology (including equipment, broadband, and platform) for students and staff to ensure learning is continuous, whether schools are open in a new normal or closed due to future outbreaks.4
“Since this pandemic began, we have maintained that nothing can truly replace the academic and personal support that comes from an in-person education,” said Herbart. “We owe it to our students to do everything in our power to return to school in the fall — but only if we can keep them, their families and the school employees who serve them safe. No one has a crystal ball about how this ongoing pandemic is going to unfold, but we can come up with minimum requirements needed to move forward with in-person learning.”
Herbart continued: “Every school building has unique assets and issues inherent to them, and no one knows them better than the employees who work there — which is why their voices have to be part of decisions about health and safety at the local level. Such considerations are part of Michigan’s collective bargaining law for a reason, and now is the time to make sure the voices of our education experts — Michigan’s school employees — are heeded.
“Finally, we must be prepared to continue student learning in the event in-person learning can’t happen. We need to ensure the technology and training to accomplish that task is readily available for students and educators alike. Since March, educators have embraced the challenge of quality distance learning and will continue to do so until and beyond the end of this pandemic.”
2) We must recognize that even when in-person education resumes, we cannot operate “business as usual” – we must primarily focus on the educational and physical well-being of students. There are practices that need to end, at least until a vaccine is publicly available, and there are additional supports our students will need during that time and going forward, including:
• Suspension of state standardized testing and the high-stakes attached to them, like 3rd grade reading retention or state data usage in teacher evaluation.5
• Bringing on additional school counselors, social workers, nurses, psychologists, instructional support professionals, and other appropriate wraparound service providers to help address student social, emotional and health needs.6
• Increased support staffing and resources to ensure our students and facilities are safe, including custodians, bus drivers, food service workers, and other education support professionals. We believe these staff should be employed directly by the school district to ensure quality and connection to the community.7
“Recognizing that everyone will be operating in uncharted waters, we must use what’s best for students as our guide in how we approach learning in the fall,” Herbart said. “We have to ensure we can fully meet students’ needs – not just academically, but also socially, emotionally and physically. That means finally having enough counselors and social workers to help students work through issues they face – especially if they’ve lost someone to COVID-19. We need nurses and qualified support professionals to ensure our schools remain healthy places to learn.
“We must embrace that time is precious and focus on addressing the learning loss caused by this pandemic. Measuring that loss and using data to help students catch up is important, but it needs to happen at the local level so educators can best meet student needs. Spending time and money on state standardized tests like the M-STEP won’t help our students make up for lost time – in fact, simply administering those tests in a socially-distant manner could cost weeks of face-to-face teaching and learning.”
3) To safely and effectively return to in-person learning, we must fully fund our schools and anticipate increased costs — not allow pandemic-driven budget cuts to further upend our students’ educations. In looking at school funding for next year, we must address our communities in greatest need, including both urban and rural areas with high poverty and districts with higher concentrations of minority students who have been historically underserved by our school funding system. To accomplish this, we need:
• Congress — in particular, the U.S. Senate — to act quickly to appropriate $175 billion in funding for our nation’s public schools and help navigate the revenue shortfalls and increased operating expenses caused by COVID-19.
• A continued commitment to closing school funding gaps between districts, including attention to both state per-pupil funding and the higher costs of educating students with greater need (such as at-risk and special education populations).
• An understanding, at both the state and local level, that taxpayer money meant to provide a great education for students needs to be used for that purpose, as opposed to building up balances in state and school district bank accounts.
“It is raining — so it’s time to use ‘rainy day funds’ to help our students achieve academically during these unprecedented times,” Herbart said. “In addition to desperately needed aid from Washington to keep our students and schools afloat financially, we must spend down our state’s budget stabilization fund and local school district fund balances that were set aside for emergency situations like we find ourselves in today.
“But we have to do all of that with both eyes firmly focused on equity for our students. Whether they have special needs that cost more to educate, or they live in a community without an adequate tax base to fully fund their schools, we must be committed to providing a world-class education for EVERY student,” Herbart said.
“As is often the case, students can make this point more clearly than adults. I firmly agree with the words of Southfield student Donovan Rogers, who said at a recent virtual rally for education funding: ‘As too often happens, these losses will most keenly affect underserved Michigan communities, especially those with large populations of black and brown children. This is not a new situation, and education is one key to overcoming this cycle. The alternative to funding our schools is unhealthy for the future of America.’”
Footnotes on data from MEA member survey, May 14-22, n=15,339:
1. 89% believe standards need to be set and enforced regarding future outbreaks of illness and required closure of buildings.
2. 75% said taking temperatures of students and staff entering school buildings and careful tracking of illnesses will be essential; while 74% believe schools should provide and require usage of masks and other personal protective equipment for employees (68% for students).
3. 91% think smaller class sizes will be necessary to enforce social distancing.
4. Educators rated schools’ continued learning opportunities for students during the pandemic an average of 7.7 out of 10, with concerns and room for improvement centering on student and educator access to technology, as well as training for how best to use those tools to enhance student learning.
5. 90% agreed standardized testing should be suspended until normal school operations resume, including requirements based on standardized tests (like 3rd grade reading retention); while 75% expressed concerns that current evaluation practices can’t be fairly implemented to measure educator effectiveness when school resumes.
6. Only 48% feel equipped to handle the social and emotional needs of students when school resumes.
7. 62% think current staffing and resources are insufficient for cleaning, food service, busing and other essential services.