Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

Republicans pushed privatizing e-learning, while Democrats questioned using fall data. Teachers just wanted to be part of the discussion.

LANSING, MI — Tuesday, classrooms both online and offline will fill again as the majority of K-12 students across Michigan return to classes. 

Parents face a lot of anxiety whether their children are learning from home using e-learning solutions or returning to the classroom in person, and teachers statewide have had to adapt regardless of what approach their district has chosen to take. 

“If she catches the flu, if she catches a bug, it shuts our entire house down, and that was before the pandemic,” said Tiffany Simmons of Taylor. “My biggest fear is sending her back to school, because she can’t manage to put on her socks in the morning, so having her put on her mask and use hand sanitizer and I’m on my way to work and have to think about if she’s following protocol? That’s a lot of pressure to put on an 11-year-old.”

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The final plan for the unique back-to-school season caused by the global coronavirus pandemic is the result of a compromise between Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Safe Schools proposal and legislative Republican’s Return to Learn proposal. The question of how to resume education had no clear-cut answer and as The ‘Gander reported the compromise largely left out the perspectives of educators. 

“For far too long, we have been failing to adequately support our students,” said state Rep. Angela Witwer (D-Delta Twp.) about the state of schools writ large. “The safety of our students — in and out of the classroom — should always be our number one priority, and parents should have the freedom to send their kids to school without fearing for their safety.”

Though there are some legislators with a background in education, like former Waverly School Board member and current Rep. Witwer, the lack of expressly including educators in the process prompted state Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) to vote against the compromise plan.

“It was a compromise, there was never going to be a perfect compromise,” Pohutsky told The ‘Gander. “I ended up being a no out of solidarity [with educators] … There were some definite improvements because in the bill that I voted on on Monday because of the changes because of the compromise, but overall the educators in my community were still very clearly opposed to it.”

Photo via State Rep. Angela Witwer’s office.

Gathering data for an unspecified reason

After consulting with educators in her community, something Pohutsky pointed out the legislature over all chose not to do, she had a major, glaring concern with a provision Republicans included in the plan.

The state will collect data from the general assessments students will take in the fall to assess learning loss caused by the pandemic, but Republicans wouldn’t address what they wanted that data to be used for, explained Pohutsky. She said educators were concerned it would be used to penalize schools that saw a higher rate of learning loss despite the assessments varying from district to district. That means any attempt to compare Detroit Public Schools to Kalamazoo Public Schools will face serious challenges from different tests assessed by different criteria. 

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Pohutsky also explained that educators worry that it will be hard to ensure parents aren’t helping students complete the assessments, making the data the state wants to gather even less reliable. 

Despite this, districts overall want to do a form of learning loss baseline assessment.

“I have not spoken to a single school district that is not planning to do some type of baseline assessment anyway,” she explained. “What these bills did with that baseline assessment did, though … [is] requiring that aggregate data go to the state. The problem with that is this bill does not require the baseline assessment to be standardized across the state.”

Pohutsky struggled with her vote, and though the compromise plan ultimately passed she had decided to vote against it. But she wasn’t the only legislator to not get what she wanted from the compromise. 

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Michigan House Democrats prepare a series of responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Photo courtesy Rep. Pohutsky’s office.

Not privatizing e-learning

The plan approved to help schools resume teaching Tuesday included money for districts to help implement e-learning solutions, but the state of rural broadband access across Michigan underscores the tech divide that school districts will grapple with throughout the pandemic. 

That wasn’t the concern Upper Michigan state Representative Greg Markkanen (R-Hancock) raised, however. Markkanen was concerned about snow days. 

“Two snow days a year just isn’t going to cut it for schools here in the Upper Peninsula,” Markkanen said. “I will be fighting to make adjustments to that part of the proposal.”

READ MORE: Trump, Michigan Republicans Want Young Kids Back in Schools — No Matter What

Markkanen also voted against a proposal that would’ve blocked the original Republican plan’s effort to use the pandemic to promote privatized e-learning solutions, though the final compromise removed those privatization incentives. The ‘choice’ to privatize was central to both the vision of Markkanen and the vision of fellow Rep. Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Twp).

“Whether a school district decides to continue with distance learning or return students safely to the classroom following consultation with their local health departments, I have supported legislation providing the resources needed for students and educators,” said Berman. “But the key word in all of this is choice – and I feel parents need to have choices at the local level as the school year approaches.”

Removing that effort to privatize e-learning was one of the improvements Pohutsky cited when talking about the compromise.