It's time to really make students the priority

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Ben DeGrow, Mackinac Center for Public Policy

These are the times that try the priorities of Michigan’s public schools. As the calendar turned to 2022, some of Michigan’s largest school districts announced a full return to remote instruction. Many parents are understandably beside themselves, even as many teachers would like to do more to help.
 
What’s worse are school districts like Detroit. It has yet to even implement a virtual education program for its 50,000 students, further delaying a post-holiday return and robbing students of learning time. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti attributed the decision to some students lacking access to laptop computers, even as the district has taken in more than $1.27 billion in extra federal COVID funding.

According to Bridge Michigan, over 6% of the state’s K-12 students missed at least one day of in-person classes this week due to COVID-related shutdowns. The 10,000 pupils in the Lansing Public School District are stuck in virtual mode until at least next week. The district provided no in-person classes from March 2020 through the end of the 2020-2021 school year. Though the latest closure figures to be much shorter, many parents are feeling the frustration of additional setbacks to their children’s education.

In the early days of the pandemic, state officials set policy with a great deal of uncertainty about the relative effects of the coronavirus and school closures on children. Today we recognize that the typical child faces “more risk from car rides than Covid,” and even more negative impacts to learning and mental health from prolonged disruptions to schooling routines.

At the same time, the increasingly prevalent Omicron variant has a far milder effect than earlier strains. Adults who receive one of the widely accessible COVID-19 vaccines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, have a 1-in-26,000 chance of being hospitalized with the virus.

Many school districts, along with private schools, have found a way to remain open. Admittedly, school systems are struggling with a host of challenges after the prolonged impacts of COVID-19. Those challenges include everything from difficulties finding substitute teachers and bus drivers to shifting requirements for virus testing and quarantine procedures. In some cases, there are enough students absent and quarantined to cancel class.

Yet, Michigan schools employ more and more personnel while standing awash in an extra $6 billion in pandemic relief from Washington, D.C. Local officials cannot blame a lack of funds for leaving students behind, or even for closing schoolhouse doors. Making student welfare the priority for decisions entails exhausting creative solutions for spending.

If regulations and other barriers stand in the way of schools fulfilling their most basic functions, state lawmakers and bureaucrats should cut the red tape. A modest template for providing needed flexibility is the recent passage of House Bill 4294 to allow nonteaching staff to cover classrooms on days that regular teachers miss.

There are examples of bolder political leadership, coming from outside Michigan and from both sides of the aisle. Eric Adams, the newly elected Democratic mayor of New York City, has staked his early success on a pledge to keep schools open during the latest coronavirus wave. And Republican Gov. Doug Ducey this week announced a new program to provide funds to Arizona families who need other schooling or childcare options because of COVID-related closures.

Michigan’s chief executive last year stood in the way of several key opportunities to give greater educational flexibility and freedom when well-resourced school systems fall short. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vetoed not one or two, but three different bills designed to provide financial aid to families to help them afford additional schooling and other services their children need to catch up and thrive.

The best way to give students who want it consistent access to in-person instruction is to put the money and the decision-making power in their families’ hands. Parents who are happy with the on-again, off-again approach taken by conventional school districts can stay put. But those who yearn for something different can make that choice for their children. Conventional structures and approaches should not hinder the greater goal to let Michigan kids learn.

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Ben DeGrow is the Mackinac Center’s director of education policy.