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State superintendent: Too soon to decide if Michigan schools can open classrooms this fall

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School buildings are closed across Michigan. Parents, students, and teachers are wondering how districts will operate when the 2020-21 school year starts in September.

For many people in Michigan, one of the most pressing issues during the coronavirus pandemic is how to handle K-12 education. Parents and kids are still navigating the final weeks of this school year, but there are major questions about what will be possible in the fall.

Michigan's State Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Rice spoke with Michigan Radio's Morning Edition about the posssibilities and concerns. 

"Early" for final decisions

Rice says Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will decide when and under what conditions Michigan schools will be allowed to reopen for in-person classes. Rice is a member of Whitmer's COVID-19 Task Force on Education, which he says is working on those issues now.

The West Bloomfield School District announced this weekthat this fall its student body will be divided in half. One group will be in school Mondays and Tuesdays, the other Thursdays and Fridays. Both will have remote learning for the remaining three days. 

Rice believes it's too soon to make those kinds of plans. 

"We're in the midst of a pandemic. And reflect upon the fact that we've had fewer days since the first COVID-19 cases in the state than we will have between now and the beginning of the [next] school [year]," Rice said. "We do not know how the pandemic is going to roll out over the next three and a half months, so I think it's early to be making decisions."

Different districts, different approaches 

However, Rice says districts will have to make many of their own choices.

"The coming year is unlikely to be anything like we've ever had in public education." - State Superintendent Michael Rice

"I believe that there will be a series of constraints or conditions under which we will operate in the fall. And within those constraints or conditions, there'll be a lot of room for local control," Rice said.

Rice, who served as the superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools for 12 years before becoming state superintendent in 2019, says different districts will have different options. 

"I spoke earlier this week with superintendents from the U.P. and they have very small classes. They're going to be able to do certain things that aren't going to be able to be done in larger suburban or urban schools and school districts," he said. "The idea of one size fits all, I don't think it's going to work in a state as diverse as Michigan."

Remote learning and the "digital divide"

There are longstanding questions about equity among districts in Michigan. Those questions have gotten additional attention as remote learning became a necessity. 

"We need every child to have a device, a computer or a laptop minimally, with preloaded educational software, preferably connected to the internet," Rice said. "We're working on closing that digital divide with the governor, with the lieutenant governor, and others in philanthropy and in public schools."   

This week, Republican State Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey told Bridge Magazine there shouldn't be cuts to school funding this school year. That's despite a $1.2 billion shortage in the state school aid fund. But there's another $1.1 billion shortage projected in the coming year. 

Rice called Shirkey's position "helpful." Shirkey has also said he'll push for federal funding to assist schools. Rice also supports that effort. 

"The reality is, is that if we don't get more funding from Congress, we're not going to be able to beat back cuts at the state level," Rice says, noting that he believes Michigan has "historically under-resourced" local  school districts. 

A lost year?

Asked if he's concerned that one day we will look back at this time as a "lost year" in the education of Michigan kids, Rice says no.

"I worry about what it is to be five years old, growing up in a pandemic, what it is to be 9 years old, or for that matter, what it is to be 17 or 18 years old and not having the sort of closure to one's high school career." he said. "I don't see it as a lost year. I really don't. We had traditional public education the first six months of [this] year. We continue to educate children to the best of educators' ability at a distance."

While the details haven't been worked out, Rice knows the changes to education aren't over. 

"The coming year is unlikely to be anything like we've ever had in public education."  

Editor's note: Comments in this story were edited for length. You can listen to the full interview with Superintendent Michael Rice at the top of this page. 

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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