A committee of education professionals and community leaders tasked by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer with lighting a path forward for schools released a blueprint on Wednesday to help districts plan how to address the needs of students, educators and families in the next phase of pandemic response.
The MI Blueprint for Comprehensive Student Recovery offers a broad set of recommendations for schools to emerge from the months-long public health crisis with a wide-ranging commitment to student health, academic achievement, equity and engagement.
Developed by a 30-member Student Recovery Advisory Council, the report’s evidence-based recommendations are broken into several categories, including wellness, academics, school climate, family and community engagement, and post-secondary opportunities.
The panel’s appointees included school leaders, educators, public health practitioners, pediatricians, school board members, community and philanthropic leaders, legislators, parents, and students.
Many of the pressing education challenges presented by the pandemic are not new but have been exacerbated by the crisis, resulting in economic hardship and social divisions, Whitmer said of the recovery blueprint’s significance.
“It will not only help local education leaders comprehensively address immediate challenges, but it will also move us towards an education system that works better for all of our children,” Whitmer said.
The document is a starting point for districts to engage educators and communities in developing multi-year plans to address local needs. It also calls on state policymakers to address well-documented funding deficiencies that have driven Michigan to the bottom of all states in education funding increases over the past 25 years.
The blueprint calls on state leaders to implement higher base funding for all schools with additional dollars for districts with higher populations of students who are at-risk, English language learners, or attending special education and career-technical classes – as recommended in a comprehensive study by the School Finance Research Collaborative in 2018. [https://www.fundmischools.org/]
“It’s going to take substantial work and resources for school districts, educators, students, and their families to begin rebuilding on the academic successes achieved by educators and students prior to the pandemic,” State Superintendent Michael Rice said after the blueprint’s release on Wednesday.
In a joint release from MEA and AFT Michigan issued on Wednesday, MEA President Paula Herbart – who served on the council – praised Whitmer for committing to include educator voices in decisions from the start of her tenure. “She has stayed true to that commitment throughout the pandemic, and this Blueprint is another example of what emerges when educator voices are included in policy-making.”
The blueprint addresses both the short-term trauma and learning disruption directly related to the pandemic and longstanding systemic problems brought into sharp focus by the historic events of the past 14 months – including the worsening educator shortage in Michigan, said MEA member Greg Talberg, a Howell social studies teacher who served on the council.
Districts should develop and implement policies and practices that create a climate of inclusivity and belonging for all, the report said. In addition, students at the district level need greater awareness of and access to a variety of post-secondary education opportunities in addition to four-year colleges, such as two-year colleges, trade schools, and technical programs.
“One of the guiding principles from the start was that we needed to pay attention to equity,” Talberg said. “The council chair was really purposeful from the start, saying that not everybody’s starting in the same place, and our efforts need to focus on those places where needs are greatest.”
Senior Dominic Gonzales, a student in Detroit, participated in development of the recommendations because he has seen the need firsthand. At 18, he is a manager at a McDonald’s restaurant, helping to provide for his mother and siblings since the death of his father five years ago.
“I wanted to put in my voice and my opinions because over the last year it’s become clear how important education is at all levels,” he said. “But at the same time, I’m seeing the students having connectivity issues and confusion with how online school works and lack of motivation from all that’s going on.”
Recommendations include calls for data collection on students’ health and academic gaps, a tiered system of supports in both the behavioral and academic realms, targeted professional development for educators, partnerships with community health and social service agencies, and more counselors, psychologists, and social workers in schools.
“Overall, the blueprint is a collection of what many experts have been saying we should be doing for the last decade, gathered together in one place,” Talberg said. “All of this has to happen at the local level, but it has to be funded and supported at the state level.”
Student mental and emotional health issues top the list of concerns that demand immediate attention in the post-pandemic period. Across the country, as social distancing became the norm and schools shifted between remote, hybrid, and in-person learning models, young people have experienced increasing rates of anxiety and depression, among other effects.
“When you have this sort of intense change and isolation from daily supports, it creates uncertainty and raises anxieties,” said MEA member Josh Smith, a high school counselor in Jackson County’s Western School District who served on the council. “COVID has put a microscope on issues that were there before but now have become even more challenging.”
Meanwhile, Smith noted, Michigan is among the worst states in the nation in terms of its students-to-counselor ratio at 690-to-1, compared to a national average of 430 students per counselor, and the staffing level recommended by research of one counselor for every 250 students.
“Students are not going to be able to learn until all of their health issues are addressed,” Smith said. “It’s hard to focus on academics when everything is in upheaval.”
The blueprint offers several “high leverage actions” that school districts can take to improve student wellness with links to resources for social-emotional learning, trauma-informed best practices and multi-tiered interventions. The plan recommends students have access to daily physical activity and movement and cautions against taking away recess as a disciplinary tool.
The document also acknowledges high levels of educator stress, depression, grief, trauma, and burnout – offering resources for staff wellness programs and policies.
“Educators are stretched way too thin, and the burnout is definitely there, so it’s important to understand that it’s OK to give yourself permission to take care of yourself,” Smith added. “Educators by their nature care about people, and sometimes we just want to put our head down and drive through, but at some point, we all need to see when a break is needed.”
In the academic realm, the blueprint calls for schools to cultivate high-trust classroom environments and focus instruction on priority standards, providing tiered supports to students as needed through tutoring, small-group interventions, and enrichment activities. Districts should provide time and space for teacher collaboration, the report said.
Research shows that having high-quality educators in every classroom is key to student success, MEA’s Herbart said. “Providing more individual attention or intervention for students who need it is essential, along with ensuring those services are delivered by well-trained, certified educators who are the experts in determining and meeting the unique needs of students.”
Beyond the focus on students, schools must also be adept at family engagement, noted MEA member Angela Pérez, a Muskegon elementary ELL teacher. Pérez contributed to the blueprint and next week takes over as chairwoman of the Governor’s Educator Advisory Council.
Some families are disconnected from school life because of mistrust or language barriers, and those are often the families most in need of supports, she said. “We have to be very deliberate in how we make offerings available and how we bring people to them. We need to plant the seed for trust in the community, and then keep watering it to help it grow.”
The pandemic has not been an equal opportunity force of destruction, Pérez pointed out. The digital divide is one example. In Muskegon, it took time to get devices to younger students who could not join virtual learning at the beginning of the pandemic, she said. Her district also eventually provided mobile hot-spots to access the internet.
But it was up to educators like Pérez to visit front porches and demonstrate how to use the devices and hot-spots. “There I was, outside the window – in the snow many times – saying, ‘OK push this button. Now put in the password. Wait, I can’t see. Can you move it closer to the window?’”
The pandemic exacerbated inequities for students who experienced added connectivity issues, trauma, family job losses and homelessness, experts say. The state estimates that approximately 13,000 of the state’s most vulnerable students disengaged from school and are missing from school enrollments.
In addition to conducting intensive outreach to reconnect those students and families, school districts will need a different model for funding that does not penalize them for lower enrollments, said state Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Canton), a former New Haven English teacher and MEA member who contributed to the blueprint’s education policy recommendations.
“Instead of the traditional 90-10 approach that uses the two student count days, we suggested taking whichever is highest of a district’s last three years of October counts and using that,” Polehanki said of that state-level policy change advocated in the recovery blueprint.
“That’s the fairest approach for everyone—it won’t harm districts with enrollment increases—and it’s important we get this right.”
Polehanki offered that amendment to the GOP-majority’s proposed education budget for 2021-22 on the floor of the Senate, but her amendment failed in a party-line vote. Budget negotiations will continue between the state House, Senate and Gov. Whitmer as the Oct. 1 fiscal year deadline approaches – alongside discussions about distributing federal school relief funding from the American Rescue Plan.
Other recommendations for state education policy changes include enacting a statewide strategy for attracting and retaining teachers (with a focus on educators of color), creating innovation zones, and expanding access to universal preschool.
With increasing demands placed on educators to meet student needs, the state must be intentional about increasing respect and compensation for the profession, Herbart concluded.
“Only then will we be able to stop and reverse the educator shortage trends we’re experiencing. Failure to do so will make the job of helping all students continue their learning post-COVID-19 even harder – and none of us can afford for that to happen.”