The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) announced new guidance for schools Jan. 8 to keep students, staff and communities safe during the COVID-19 pandemic while providing the in-person instruction that is crucial to learning and development. Photo courtesy the Office of the Governor
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) announced new guidance for schools Jan. 8 to keep students, staff and communities safe during the COVID-19 pandemic while providing the in-person instruction that is crucial to learning and development.

The struggles to teach during the pandemic have left kids behind. A key part of Gov. Whitmer’s new relief proposal is getting those kids back on track.

FERNDALE, Mich.—Teaching during the pandemic is no small task. Because so many students are learning remotely through web-based platforms, teachers have a hard time tracking a student’s progress. That’s leading to learning loss with some students lagging behind when they return to the classroom, according to some Michigan teachers. 

While high-achieving students continue to excel, teachers say, other students are falling behind. That’s a challenge of virtual learning teachers are facing. 

“Teaching virtually is like teaching with a blindfold on,” Ferndale High science teacher Maurice Telesford told Bridge. “Our students aren’t turning on their cameras, so you’re teaching for hours staring into a blank screen with very little response.” 

While most of Telesford’s students are doing well, he said freshmen are struggling especially hard due to the already jarring transition between middle and high school education. Adding to that the distance-caused learning loss, and more than half of his freshmen students are failing. That’s not just a Ferndale problem, it’s true across the nation.

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But a new plan from Gov.Gretchen Whitmer would seek to help get things back on track. Her proposed Michigan COVID Recovery Plan would allocate $2 billion to addressing this learning loss and catching students up on where they fell behind because of the pandemic. 

“In order to safely educate Michigan students, schools and educators must have the funding necessary to put virus mitigation measures in place and adhere to them,” Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart said in a statement. “COVID-19 has impacted every district in the state and every district needs resources to continue educating Michigan students.That’s why the additional per-pupil funding proposed by the governor is so critical,in addition to providing extra support for the individual needs of Michigan at-risk and special education students.” 

The plan also includes $90 million to improve the state’s vaccine logistics infrastructure and to help increase vaccine production.

That, too, is an education issue.

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Getting kids back to schools on the proposed timeline of March almost exactly a year since students haven’t been in Ferndale classrooms will require a lot of vaccinations. Schools have been hotbeds of transmission to the point that staffing issues ran rampant in November.

“The role of immunization is crucial,” Laurie Oldford, board member of the Port Huron Area School District, told The ‘Gander. “I think that teachers are a high priority; I think they should be at the top of the list, next to healthcare providers and essential frontline people.”

Getting safely back into the classroom is an important step toward preventing further learning loss while undoing the damage done to Michiganders’ education.

Telesford also feels like a critical bond that forms between teachers and students is missing in Zoom classrooms, which both saddens him and makes him concerned about what else has fallen away.

READ MORE: Michigan’s March Deadline to Resume Classroom Instruction Sets Off Race for Vaccination

“I probably heard students laugh this semester four times,” Telesford said. “And that’s depressing. I’ve only had a class that had an off-topic discussion once this year. And we all know those off-topic discussions are moments students sometimes appreciate the most, spending 15 minutes discussing sweet potato pie versus pumpkin pie.”

Most of the money for Gov. Whitmer’s $5.6 billion proposal comes from federal coronavirus aid passed in December, with the state only putting in half a billion from its own coffers.But Republicans in the Michigan House might hold the proposal up in an effort to pressure the state to end the pandemic protections currently in place, despite the emergence of the more infectious variant of the coronavirus in Michigan.

“Unless we start reopening, I’m not going to start having conversations with the governor,” Rep. Thomas Albert (R-Lowell), who chairs the House’s Appropriations Committee, told WKAR. “If she starts reopening, we’ll start talking.”