Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants classrooms reopened by March 1, but  COVID vaccinations could make all the difference for school staff and students. Image via Shutterstock
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants classrooms reopened by March 1, but COVID vaccinations could make all the difference for school staff and students.

In the hardest-hit region of Michigan, the extra flexibility the Biden Administration is giving schools lets teachers like Cathy Murray focus on what’s most important—learning.

PORT HURON, Mich.—At Port Huron Northern High School, Cathy Murray teaches psychology to the young minds of Michigan’s Thumb region. The last year has been different for certain, but her mission has stayed the same. 

She also just had a baby, amidst the worst the pandemic has ever been in St. Clair County. That puts the stress, anxiety and worries of parents and students in clearer focus than ever for her. But she’s focused on seeing students through. 

That includes during inevitable test time. 

Acknowledging the struggle teachers have faced teaching through the pandemic, the federal standards for progress and participation that are normally tested for are being waived for the 2020-2021 school year, Michigan’s Department of Education announced.

The Biden Administration hasn’t allowed states blanket permission to skip standardized testing altogether in 2021, but has afforded states flexibility in how and when those tests will take place, which allows states to focus in the immediate future on student success instead of test preparation. 

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Biden’s Department of Education said that the intent of waiving some accountability requirements is so the state can focus on creating assessments to keep parents, teachers and other stakeholders in the loop about student needs as the pandemic has disrupted their education

And for Murray, that means putting her focus on adapting to an ever-changing pandemic.

“The major thing we have to be doing as professionals, as educators, as parents is to just really make sure that kids feel respected and to let them know they can learn in these challenging times,” she told The ‘Gander. “I think that for the most part if parents are involved, if people are doing what schools are putting out for them to do, if kids are engaged in online learning … it’s just keeping up with what’s going on and making sure kiddos know that education is important.”

Murray said that learning loss isn’t as bad among her students as it would be for those in elementary schools, learning to read and reliant on routine. But even she is a bit behind where she would normally be, she admitted, by about a week.

Skipping Tests Altogether

Michigan is also seeking a waiver from standardized testing for this school year, instead favoring benchmark assessments to see if students are maintaining the pace in their education. The federal education department said it is still reviewing that request. 

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State Superintendent Micheal Rice said this was a time to focus less on test results and more on the upkeep of students’ emotional well-being and education longevity.

That sentiment was echoed by Murray.

“When we’re testing kids all the time, we’re taking away from educational time,” she explained. “It’s kind of nice that we’re relaxing a little ‘cause we really just need the time with our kiddos. Everyone’s really worried about our kids but still thinks we should be testing them all the time, and that only creates further anxiety.”

Last March, Michigan was allowed to waive standardized testing for the 2019-2020 school year. The state department of education instead is advocating for twice-a-year benchmark assessments to be used to measure student success of K-8 students after the state created a requirement for such examinations last summer.

Between baseline assessments, standardized tests and other ways to measure school performance, the time to address learning loss from the pandemic has been hard to find. 

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“This has been an extremely challenging year for students and educators,” Rice said. “[The US Department of Education] waiver of federal accountability requirements recognizes that our schools are still navigating their way through a deadly pandemic that continues to grip our state and nation.”

And Port Huron, especially. Murray’s school is in the hardest-hit region of the state from the latest COVID surge and has, again, moved to all-virtual instruction. With how unpredictable things are in the Thumb right now, she doesn’t know how long she’ll be teaching virtually. 

“Right now we’re remote for at least one more week,” Murray said. “I just keep hearing rumblings that all of that could change based on where St. Clair County’s numbers are at.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.