UPDATE: State lawmakers unveil "Return to Learn" plan

Published: Jun. 23, 2020 at 12:00 PM EDT
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A week after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gave schools the green light to reopen after the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools across the nation, a group of Michigan lawmakers announced some details about their plan to bring students back in the fall.

On the steps of the State Capitol Building, House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey spoke, followed by Rep. Pamela Hornberger, Sen. Lana Theis and Rep. Ryan Berman.

Hornberger said schools will receive $800 per student, totaling $1.3 billion. That money will be used for technology and connectivity for distance learning, developing curriculum and helping districts be flexible in how they reopen.

"There really hasn't been an investment to the point we needed to get everybody to learn from home," said Representative Graham Filler.

"We want to give some certainty because students want to go back to school, teachers want to teach physically at the school, but we know it's going to be unprecedented," Filler continued.

The plan also gives $75 to intermediate school districts to cover the costs of implementing reopening plans.

There will also be one-time payments for teachers, Hornberger said.

“The $500 per teacher will be put out to assist classroom teachers and all of the issues that they’ve been dealing with in meeting the needs of their students thus far this year,” Hornberger said.

The money in the plan, about $1 billion in total according to Berman, will come from federal funds provided to Michigan to handle COVID-19 issues.

According to a news release sent out shortly after the press conference, the plan also:

• Redefines the word “attendance” to mean “engaged in instruction” rather than “physically present,” allowing schools to be innovative and give students the opportunity to learn outside the classroom.

• Limits the use of snow days to encourage the use of remote instruction when in-person instruction is unsafe or unsuitable. Moving forward, schools would be granted just two forgiven days of instruction per year.

• Utilizes benchmark assessments to provide detailed information to parents and teachers about where a student needs additional help, ensuring kids do not fall behind in the wake of the public health crisis.

• Requires school districts to work with local health departments to establish safety requirements for extracurricular activities and sports in addition to regular school safety measures.

Shirkey and Chatfield both said the response from the state government to schools, students and parents after the pandemic changed how kids learn in Michigan has been lacking.

“The state has been derelict in giving guidance to the schools and parents,” Shirkey said.

However, Dan Quisenberry, president of the State Charter School Associated, said schools couldn't plan until now because they didn't know what was budgeted or even expected.

"Schools need to be able to respond to safety issues and keep academic performance in mind. That's going to be a different answer depending on where they are," said Quisenberry. "This is the beginning of a good an important conversation about flexibility there. Expecting outcomes and rigor, but also providing the funding that's necessary."

At her press conference Wednesday, Whitmer said if all goes well and the state continues on its current trajectory, students will be able to return to their classroom this fall as part of Phase 4 of MI Safe Start plan, which most regions of the state are currently in.

The governor said the state's 800-plus districts will move at their own pace with some districts being able to start more aggressively than others.

"Each has unique challenges and each has different resources whether it's what the building looks like,” Whitmer said. “What I can tell you is that our intent is to resume in-person instruction to do so in a way that is safe but also but to make sure that as we get back to school as we return to learn that we have very clear guidance as to what the minimum expectations are. Some schools will be able to do things in an even more aggressive way others will need some help just to get to the minimum expectations but we know bringing down class size is a possibility.”

Gov. Whitmer also mentioned concern for the number of teachers old enough to be considered more vulnerable to the virus. She said schools will also have to be prepared for a potential second wave of the virus and be able to move quickly if that happens.

During her press conference, the governor said she will be releasing a "Return to School Roadmap," which is set to be released by her office on June 30.

Copyright WILX. All rights reserved.

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