Michigan House Republicans passed legislation to get students back into critically underfunded schools, leaving local teachers like Kim Eberhard wondering how to enforce masks and social distancing.
LANSING, MI — Wednesday night, Republicans in the State House passed a package of legislation aimed at restoring in-person instruction in schools to the youngest Michiganders.
“Districts will do what they need to do in order to make schools safe for kids,” argued Rep. Pamela Hornberger (R-Chesterfield), chairwoman of the House Education Committee.
But not all districts can. As she told The ’Gander, Kimberly Eberhard works in East China School District, a small-town district with dated infrastructure that has severe limitations on the safety precautions it can implement.
“East China won’t be able to go much past basic level requirements due to structure and money issues,” Eberhard said. “If we could do everything to protect our kids, we would. We just don’t have the materials or money.”
Eberhard, who teaches English at St. Clair High School, said while certain social challenges can be planned around, dated infrastructure has her concerned about issues like the school’s ventilation system. She also is concerned about parents. Some parents, she worries, won’t want their kids to mask up.
“So what do we do? We could offer two options: face-to-face for those who follow rules and online for those who would rather not participate in our new reality,” she said. “I can do both. I have been using online along with face class time for years.”
Navigating specifics like that remains up to each individual school district under Gov. Whitmer’s plan, as each district needs to outline its own strategies for how to safely reengage students under a variety of scenarios. And those schools have just a month remaining until they reopen.
House Democrats also criticised the Republican package for pushing the privatization of schools by giving preferential treatment to certain for-profit e-learning solutions.
Michiganders Look at Reopening Schools
Teachers and parents spoke at the Fowlerville Community Schools Board of Education meeting via Zoom on Tuesday asking the school board — which did not meet in person — to delay a return to in-classroom instruction in the fall.
Tonya DeFever is a parent and substitute teacher, and WHMI reports she called for an online-only first semester to the 20-21 school year. Chemistry teacher Nicole Olszowy pointed out schools reopening in countries like Israel contributing to spikes in coronavirus cases. The district’s superintendent, Wayne Roedel, said finding a win-win scenario may not be possible.
And while Detroit schools have already resumed in-person instruction, it has been over protest of parents. A federal court ordered Tuesday that every Detroit summer school student of any age must be tested for the coronavirus by July 29 or be removed from school.
“I think in-person summer enrollment will show the district that it [in-person classes] won’t work for the fall school year,” Detroit parent Theresa Pringle told The ’Gander. “I’m okay with their two days in school and two online for the fall.”
The recent spike in coronavirus cases in Michigan has slowed progress toward reengagement in multiple sectors and is accounted for in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Safe Schools plan.
As The ’Gander explored previously, the MI Safe Schools plan has multiple different policy proposals, including required and optional safety protocols for schools. Those requirements are based on how mitigated the spread of the coronavirus is in the region where the school district is located.
Recently, Gov. Whitmer has tied the plan to return to in-person instruction to stemming the tide of new coronavirus infections Michigan has been observing since mid-June, which so far crested July 15 at nearly 900 cases.
But not all plans are as adaptive.
Trump Pushes Schools to Open, Biden Advocates Adaptability
The Trump Administration is pushing hard to reopen schools in as close to a traditional way as possible. Trump has even threatened to withhold school funding from those districts that don’t comply with full in-person education, which, as the Washington Post reports, is not something he can actually do.
President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have an aggressive reopening plan for American schools that would get all children back in the classroom for full-time instruction at any cost.
“The science should not stand in the way of this,” said press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. “Our schools are extremely important, they are essential and they must reopen.”
Even communities that backed Trump in 2016 are pushing back against that aggressive reopening plan. For instance, Buckeye Elementary School District in Arizona, located in a small Maricopa County town that backed Trump in 2016, is resisting the Trump Administration push to return all kids to classrooms.
“Although the administration can apparently absorb the 150,000 [coronavirus] deaths without care or consequence, we do not have the luxury of even losing one,” Buckeye superintendent Kristi Wilson told the Post. “They don’t have the authority to pull our funds. But I think that kind of threat stokes the fire for the teachers who are doing their very best to come back to school.”
Rather than a hard-and-fast reopening policy, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden advocates for a sort of national-level MI Safe Start — a comprehensive set of policies and guidelines that help individual school districts craft plans as to how best to reengage.
“Forcing educators and students back into a classroom in areas where the infection rate is going up or remaining very high is just plain dangerous,” Biden said while announcing his plan.
And the infection rate is going up and remaining high nationwide.
Biden also called for investment in education, with about $30 billion for school districts and another $4 billion for upgraded technology and broadband. He also called for a concerted Department of Education effort to expand and improve remote learning.
“Everyone wants our schools to reopen,” Biden said. “The question is how to make it safe, how to make it stick.”