Q&A on potential return to in-person learning

Throughout the pandemic, MEA has been actively collecting and sharing information with members, including a survey of members about COVID-19 and education, as well as a statement about MEA’s priorities for a safe return to learning.

The following are some of the questions we’re receiving from MEA members as discussions continue about a potential return to in-person learning in the fall. It’s important to keep in mind that MEA has a diverse membership with differing views on these complicated issues.  In the end, MEA’s role is to support and empower our 1,100 locals across the state to advocate for their students and our members – not dictate one course of action.

 

Q: Does MEA believe schools should re-open for in-person instruction in the fall? (updated 7/23)

A: Schools should only resume in-person classes if health professionals deem it’s safe and school employees have a voice in reopening plans. (See MEA President Paula Herbart’s video clearly outlining MEA’s position on this and the importance of school employee involvement in local decision making.)

Since the outset of this pandemic, MEA has believed the closure of schools for in-person instruction must be a public health decision driven by public health experts.  The inverse – reopening schools – is similarly a decision that must be dependent on the opinion of health experts.  Our first priority has been and must continue to be the health and safety of students, school employees, families and the public at large.

We need to develop plans for how to safely return to in-person learning, but if public health officials don’t believe it’s safe, then in-person learning should not happen.  As Gov. Whitmer has said, “I want to make this clear — I will not send our kids and our education workforce into our schools unless it is safe to do so, plain and simple. I have made decisions based on science and facts to keep Michiganders safe since the beginning, and won’t stop now.”

 

Q: Why does MEA support Gov. Whitmer’s roadmap for reopening?

Contrasted with the White House’s position that the nation’s schools should re-open in the fall regardless of where we’re at with containing COVID-19, the MI Safe Schools Return to School Roadmap is a flexible, staged plan that takes into account where we’re at as a state with spread of the disease. It’s worth noting that in-person learning can only resume in areas that are at Stage 4 or better – and, as a state, we’re at risk of moving backwards on containing the outbreak and reverting to earlier stages that prohibit in-person school.

The Roadmap includes input from educators (including the MEA president and several other front-line educators) and health experts (including the state’s chief medical executive and several other health officials) about how to safely and effectively return to in-person learning – while understanding that this is not a “return to normal.” The document sets minimum requirements that need to be met for a school to return to in-person learning – but it also includes strong recommendations for other steps districts can and should take locally to protect everyone’s health.  MEA is encouraging and assisting our local associations to engage in those conversations with school districts, including providing an at-a-glance reference guide for the Roadmap’s requirements and recommendations (created by the MEA Center for Leadership and Learning).

To reiterate, safety MUST be the primary consideration here. Just because you have a roadmap doesn’t mean you start drag racing on gravel roads. We need good plans for how to return to in-person learning, but that can only happen if health experts say it’s SAFE.

 

Q: Why shouldn’t all schools have to follow more stringent requirements set by the state as opposed to decisions being made locally?

A: In a statement when the Roadmap was released, Herbart said, “While many school districts will doubtless go beyond the minimum guidelines laid out today, they are an important common starting point.” As a large state with local control over schools, districts in Metro Detroit have different needs than those in the Upper Peninsula.  Not only are different areas of the state potentially in different stages of the outbreak, different buildings have different abilities to take steps such as reduced class sizes, increased social distancing, or even open windows for fresh air.  That’s why plans need to be developed locally, with the input of school employees (as required by Michigan’s bargaining laws) and health experts – and why the federal government needs to send states more funding to address aging infrastructure that must be addressed for safe reopening (on top of preventing pandemic-driven cuts).

 

Q: My district is developing reopening plans – how do I know my union is involved in those discussions? (Updated 7/23)

A: Your local union leadership should be your first stop with questions about district planning processes, understanding that conversations are ongoing and constantly shifting based on the latest facts and data. Many local associations are taking strong stands, based on the needs of their membership and their district’s students, about actions districts need to take – read more about those efforts here.

At the state level, MEA is providing resources and guidance (such as legal and bargaining supports) to help local leaders and staff with these local discussions, understanding that health and safety are mandatory subjects of bargaining under Michigan law.  MEA’s legal advice is that locals should demand to bargain over these issues – and we are committed to fighting any attempts to end-run that obligation by districts. As President Herbart said in a recent video, “If school districts are keeping you and your members out of the process, making decisions about returning to school that don’t include you, and are ignoring you at the bargaining table, then they’ll see us in court.”

MEA joined with AFT Michigan and school management in a joint statement that called on local districts and educators to work collaboratively on reopening plans, urging adoption of recommended protocols laid out in the Roadmap while specifically outlining that collective bargaining process must be followed to bring school employees into the decision making process.

 

Q: Why shouldn’t we just keep going with distance learning and online instruction?

A: As MEA President Paula Herbart said in a release last month, “Since this pandemic began, we have maintained that nothing can truly replace the academic and personal support that comes from an in-person education. 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.”

We need to be prepared to continue quality distance learning in the fall – and many districts may opt to use those tools on a regular basis for student learning. The Roadmap includes recommendations about distance-only and hybrid learning models that districts could choose to implement.  But to be successful, we need to address the “digital divide” for all students and staff to ensure learning can effectively continue in those situations.  And we need to ensure that we meet the social, emotional and physical needs of students who depend on school for more than just academics – something that distance learning will always struggle to fully accomplish.

 

Q: What about educators who are at higher-risk of contracting COVID-19? Does MEA believe they should go back to work?  And what about sick leave for those who might contract the virus?

A: We know many educators are uncertain about returning to work this fall – either because of safety concerns or the challenges of further distance learning.  Nearly a third of educators in MEA’s survey said they were thinking about retiring or leaving the profession because of COVID-19, with both health concerns and the method of teaching being raised as reasons – many have already chosen to not return.

The concerns of all employees need to be taken into account in local decision making, with health and safety matters being a mandatory subject of bargaining under Michigan law. Depending on how schools choose to return in the fall – including optional distance-only or hybrid in-person/distance models, there could be options for educators to continue working only online or using other distance learning methods. Decisions about those matters – as well as paid sick leave provisions – are subject to local agreements.

 

Q: I’ve heard about efforts to hire private companies to offer online instruction to students. What is MEA doing to stop efforts to privatize student learning?

A: Outsourcing instructional staff is illegal without negotiating in good faith, and MEA will fight against handing the education of students over to private companies. Michigan parents trust educators to meet the needs of their students, whether it’s in-person or online. If districts attempt to outsource instructional jobs, they’ll find themselves in court.

 

Q: How will schools navigate a return this fall in light of potential budget cuts and increased safety costs?

A: The pandemic-driven funding gaps we’re facing in public education are a threat to our students’ academic and physical health.  Rather than cutting funding, we need to invest more in this time of greater need.  That’s why we need Congress – specifically the U.S. Senate – to pass the HEROES Act to provide billions to help states continue providing a quality public education to students.  Without help from Washington, we’ll be faced with shortfalls and disinvestment in our students and educators at the time we can least afford it. Federal CARES Act funds allocated to districts so far – in the end, providing an additional $256 million for K-12 districts this year – can help with the safety costs, but they aren’t sufficient to meet the needs for a safe return to in-person learning.

 

Q: Are there concerns about student attendance, days & hours requirements, schools of choice and other issues about how schools will function financially?

A: These are all issues that have to be addressed by the Legislature and Governor for the next budget year starting Oct. 1.  MEA is concerned about districts making decisions based on finances rather than the health of students and employees, such as pushing limits of what is safe to encourage students to switch districts to increase pupil counts and funding.  MEA is advocating with lawmakers to provide necessary flexibility to meet student needs in the fall.

 

Q: What about standardized testing requirements for next year?

A: MEA believes state standardized testing should be suspended for next year, along with the high-stakes attached to them, like third-grade reading retention or state data usage in teacher evaluation.  The Michigan Department of Education has asked for a waiver for federal testing and accountability requirements for the 2020-21 school year.

 

Q: What about higher education reopening in the fall?

A: MEA’s higher education group, the Michigan Association for Higher Education (MAHE), is looking at issues relative to campuses reopening safely.  In general, college-aged students can be more successful in an online learning environment and those tools have been used effectively throughout this crisis by universities and community colleges. However, those tools don’t fully replace in-person learning needs (especially for labs and other practical college experiences) – just as in K-12, employees need to be engaged in discussions about how and when to safely resume those experiences for students.

 

Q: How are the “reopening phases” in the Roadmap determined?  What phase are we in locally? (added 7/23)

A: The Roadmap prohibits in-person school if a region is in Phase 1-3, while allows for it with various required and recommended actions for Phases 4-6.  The regions and standards for the Phases are laid out in the MI Safe Start Plan.  As of July 23, the Upper Peninsula and Northern Lower Peninsula (Regions 6 & 8) are in Phase 5, while the rest of the state (Regions 1-5 and 7) are in Phase 4.  Those phases are outlined in Executive Orders 115 and 110, respectively.  However, given recent COVID trends, Gov. Whitmer has warned that areas of the state are at risk of reverting back to earlier phases if virus spread cannot be slowed.

 

This Q&A will be updated as more information becomes available. Last updated July 23, 2020.

 

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