As districts across the state scramble for a viable plan of action, teachers want to move learning online.
MICHIGAN — Andy and Janelle have more than 20 years of combined experience working in the classroom. The two metro Detroit teachers were among the dozens who gathered on the State Capitol lawn to protest the reopening of school buildings to in-person instruction this year.
The couple, who married last year, asked to be identified by their first names only, fearful of retaliation against them from their employers.
“It was hard for me to figure out what was going on,” Janelle said of the abrupt school closures in March. “And our district didn’t give a lot of guidance until the end of April.”
The school year ended just as abruptly as in-person instruction did last year, and fall plans are a scattered hodgepodge of contradictory ideas throughout the state, thanks in part to the confusing messaging coming from federal leadership.
The White House says that all schools should reopen in the fall, that the “science shouldn’t stand in the way” of it, and offered incentives for school districts that offered in-person instruction for the upcoming term.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state Department of Education recommend reopening plans based on the local districts’ needs and capabilities, ultimately leaving many districts to figure things out on their own.
“We had no conversation until a week ago,” Janelle, a fourth grade teacher, said of her southeastern district’s plans to reopen. “They did send a survey out, but they wanted our names so a lot of teachers chose not to do it.”
Organizing for safety
“None of this is ideal,” Andy said. “Online teaching is just the least-worst option in all of this.” His district has already decided to return to school virtually, but he wants the safety of all Michigan teachers prioritized.
He and his wife are members of the Michigan Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (MI CORE). The group organized last week’s protest on the lawn of the State Capitol to ensure lawmakers understood the dangers in-person instruction could impose during the pandemic.
MI CORE said the protest has energized teachers across the state to be heard as leaders and lawmakers consider instructional options for the school year.
“Teachers are waking up to the importance of making their voices heard in our communities,” MI CORE leadership told The ‘Gander in an exclusive statement. “One voice speaking up for us is nice. Thousands of voices are nicer, and that’s what we’re working towards.”
Thousands of voices could come from the AFT, as the union released its recommendations for reopening guidelines for the 2020 – 2021 school year. Their stance is clear from the first line of their suggestions:
Schools should not resume in-person instruction until it’s safe for students and educators.
“In any plan to reopen schools, the wellbeing of students and staff must be our first priority,” said AFT Michigan President, David Hecker. “Our goal is to negotiate in good faith with employers and ensure schools are fully prepared to keep students and educators safe before they resume in-person instruction.”
Protect Our Public Schools (POPS) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to its namesake. Their most recent action in Michigan was a mobile billboard campaign designed to criticize Betsy DeVos, with the U.S. Education Secretary’s summer mansion as its final destination.
DeVos received criticism from educators and the media for retreating to her Michigan estate, rather than working from Washington, to solve the nation’s educational crisis.
“We’re in the middle of a deadly pandemic, and some politicians want to force every school to just open their doors,” said Ellen Offen, Vice President of POPS and a former Detroit Public Schools teacher. “These politicians are the ones that failed to keep the virus under control in the first place. They are the same ones ignoring medical science, refusing to wear masks, and not taking Americans dying seriously. It’s absolutely shameful.”
Political barriers and buffers
A White House plan for restarting schools offers $70 billion in coronavirus aid to K-12 schools in the next relief package, with half of it being reserved for schools that reopen to in-person learning.
“We want to reopen the schools. Everybody wants it. The moms want it, the dads want it, the kids want it. It’s time to do it,” President Trump said at the plan’s unveiling last month. “We’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools.”
Despite federal directives for a blanket reopening of school buildings with no restart plans, Michigan’s governor assembled a group of experts to address the issue locally. The Return to School Advisory Council is made up of 25 parents, education, and health experts.
“Our plan is not based on what is coming from the federal government,” Skillman Foundation President and Advisory Council chairwoman Tonya Allen told MLive. “We don’t want to get tied up into the national political debates on this issue, which have exacerbated people’s concerns. Because it is about what they want to do rather than what’s right for children, what’s right for families.”
Andy and Janelle believe it’s right for all Michigan schools to move to online instruction.
“You can’t tell kids not to touch each other. They’re social beings who want to hug their friends or touch their friends,” Andy said. “I doubt (school districts) would make it through the end of September because of COVID cases in their buildings.”