Teachers like Kim Eberhard say Michigan’s public school students deserve more when it comes to returning to classrooms in the fall, even in remote districts like hers.
EAST CHINA, MI — Going back to school during a pandemic is a daunting prospect for teachers and schools.
Kimberly Eberhard is a high school English teacher with the East China School District. She’s not sure her district is even capable of providing for a safe environment.
“I actually wrote our current superintendent yesterday, saying … I was happy not to have the job the governor has placed before her,” Eberhard told The ’Gander. “Education has been defunded for so long, buildings are so old, districts have a hard time making budget every year. Adding a pandemic on top of it is going to be difficult, even with the funds our governor has put aside to help.”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Safe Schools plan outlines a series of safety protocols teachers and schools can implement in addition to a minimum acceptable standard for pandemic safety. Going beyond those minimum standards will be a challenge in some districts, though.
School Funding Hasn’t Been Enough During the Pandemic
Schools have received money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES), though it was a relatively small amount for a relatively large crisis.
“Public schools were overlooked in the CARES Act,” Ellen Offen, vice president of the nonprofit Protect Our Public Schools and retired Detroit teacher, told The ’Gander. “Out of the $2.2 trillion, K-12 public schools got about $13.5 billion, which is really a drop in the bucket for the unprecedented crisis our public schools face. Even in the 2009 stimulus package, funding for K-12 schools was 1.5 times greater than what it was in the CARES Act. And schools across Michigan are facing a much greater, daunting crisis now.”
And comparing CARES Act funding to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Michigan has received far less funding for a far worse crisis, Protect Our Public Schools argued. While Michigan education got $1.6 billion in 2009, in 2020 it got only around $850 million.
And breaking CARES funding down further, K-12 schools in Michigan only get $293 per student.
“Our schools face the biggest challenge in history, and we have a U.S. Education Secretary in Betsy DeVos who is apathetic at best, but really seems to only care about undermining public schools,” said Offen, a former Detroit Public Schools teacher.
DeVos is a Michigander appointed by President Donald Trump, who has allocated a large portion of coronavirus relief money to charter schools and private religious institutions instead of public schools.
“Michigan’s public schools will be tasked with not only ensuring 1.5 million students receive the education they deserve this fall, but they will have to monitor and limit COVID-19 exposure among children and our communities,” said Offen. “The federal support and guidance our public schools have received from Secretary DeVos falls woefully short for the unprecedented challenges we’re up against.”
Tuesday, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced she is suing the Department of Education in order to give schools more control over education funding from the CARES Act.
A Long Legacy of Disinvestment
Eberhard isn’t sure what kind of funding today would make up for decades of critically underfunding education.
“Education has been neglected for decades and now everyone will discover how bad it has been,” said Eberhard.
While an additional spending package including money for public schools is likely to be considered in late July, Eberhard doubts any level of support can really address long-standing structural problems schools are facing.
“Our buildings are old. The halls and classrooms are small. There is not a proper ventilation system appropriate for pandemic measures,” she said. “The federal government would have to create new structures which would meet safety requirements along with technology for all kids who need it at home.”
She also talked about social problems schools will have to overcome, like limiting socializing among high school students and addressing overcrowding in hallways. But structural problems born from decades of neglect are going to be a larger hill for teachers to climb.
“When I say it’s not even possible — the federal government fixing our problems — it comes from 33 years of my living through neglect,” Eberhard said. “You can’t fix that.”
Despite this, Eberhard remains resolved to continue working to teach Michigan’s youth as best she can.
“I’m not a pessimistic person,” she said. “If I were, I would not still be in my classroom. I believe in goodness and karma. I believe in getting up every day and making it work as best I can. I believe we can have some form of face to face next year, it just won’t be as good as I feel our young people deserve.”