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School officials, lawmakers react to virus’ impact on education

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published March 31, 2020

The new coronavirus is testing school and state officials’ ability to adapt as Michigan’s schoolchildren have gone more than two weeks without in-class instruction.  

Following the state-ordered shutdown of Michigan schools effective March 16, Utica Community Schools Superintendent Christine Johns issued a March 30 letter with some news and updates. She said the district made some “remarkable achievements” with online learning through the Schoology learning management system.

“Already, we have 85 percent of our students logged in and using the system,” she said. “We encourage all families to connect with their teachers using Schoology.”

A UCS FAQ guide, posted on Facebook March 25, said the Michigan Department of Education had released a statement that said that online learning would not be counted as instructional time toward the mandated 180 days of learning.

“Since the number of days of instruction are determined by state law, this issue must be addressed by the state Legislature. We are working with the Michigan Department of Education and legislators to address this issue,” the district said in a statement.

When it comes to high school seniors, the district says its instructional team is working on the matter so that seniors who meet the necessary benchmarks may graduate. UCS added that nothing definite has been decided about future school calendars because educators, lawmakers and other state officials are still in talks.

“Utica Community Schools is working closely with the Macomb Intermediate School District to ensure a united Macomb County voice as we address the needs of all schools with state lawmakers,” Johns added in an email to C & G Newspapers.

According to UCS, as of March 30, the schools were still tentatively scheduled to reopen April 14, though that could be changed depending on state action. During a March 27 radio interview, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the prospect of students returning to class was “very unlikely,” but she added that an official decision and a plan could arise the following week.

UCS added that the U.S. Department of Education will ignore its requirement for state assessments this year, but the state Legislature needs to issue its own waiver too.

Meanwhile, local state representatives are considering what they might do to address the situation.

State Rep. Nate Shannon, D-Sterling Heights, represents Michigan House District 25, which includes parts of Sterling Heights and Warren. He said he is the father of a high school senior and is also currently helping one of his other children with online learning.

Shannon said he is in favor of waiving the status quo on in-class school days and making online learning days count in order to reward students and teachers for their hard work. He said that while he isn’t 100% sure, he believes that “it sounds like it’s going to take legislative action.”

Shannon said that from what he has heard, it sounds like Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield is in favor of doing that, and both Democrats and Republicans are on board with waiving the days.

Shannon added that the state of Michigan has a requirement of 18 credit hours for high school seniors, but some school districts require above and beyond that. He urged those districts to lower their standards this year.

“Our seniors have plans to go off to college or off to work,” he said.

State Rep. Diana Farrington, R-Utica, represents Michigan House District 30, which encompasses Utica and portions of Sterling Heights and Shelby Township. Farrington stressed the importance of putting the kids first.

“What’s been going on in Lansing is we just got together this week to try to hash out some of this stuff,” she said March 26. 

However, she said lawmakers still don’t know the trajectory this pandemic will take, nor do they know how much longer it will last or how much longer kids will be off from school. 

“It’s just a big question mark right now, just based on the fact it’s falling between spring break time,” she said. “We haven’t even flattened the curve.”

She added that this pandemic is not students’ fault. 

“We don’t want to hold a student back because of it,” she said. “We want to kids to graduate, we want this to advance to the next grade.”

 Farrington, who said she supported Whitmer’s stay-at-home order, further elaborated her position in a March 30 statement.

“There are other challenges to address moving forward, such as the impact these steps will have on our school days or the state’s vital small business sector,” she said. 

“We continue to have discussions, weigh our options and plan as this situation unfolds. First and foremost, we are making every effort to keep people safe and our health care system — along with medical workers who are on the front lines of this battle — from being overwhelmed. That starts with you, and it starts right at home.”

Find out more about Utica Community Schools’ online learning program by visiting www.uticak12.org/onlinelearning. Get updated on state coronavirus news by visiting michigan.gov/coronavirus. Find out more about state Rep. Diana Farrington by visiting gophouse.org. To learn more about State Rep. Nate Shannon, visit housedems.com/shannon.

Call Staff Writer Eric Czarnik at (586) 498-1058.