Capital News Service

Educators grapple with COVID days as the new snow days

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As a handful of Michigan schools have already closed due to illness, educators are hoping digital learning could keep schools on schedule.

Education groups are trying to figure out how to avoid missing more than the six days allowed by state law now that the Michigan Department of Education has returned to pre-pandemic attendance requirements.  

In the past, such concerns were sparked by excessive snow days. But now staff shortages and absences due to illness and quarantine are prompting some districts to close their doors.

At least four school districts within the state have already undergone temporary shutdowns, including Baldwin Community Schools, Eastpointe Community Schools, Pickford Public Schools and Reed City Area Public schools.

State law requires districts to each year schedule 180 school days with a minimum of 1,098 hours of instruction. Last year districts were given flexibility in meeting that requirement. But  the Department of Education said in July that is no longer the case.

For school districts to meet these requirements, district wide attendance must be at least 75% for a minimum of 180 days. 

“We don’t want the counting of days to become an issue due to outbreaks in our district,” said Jennifer Smith, director of government relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards. “This delta virus is so highly contagious we would rather be able to address the issues we have now so that we can get through the school year without having to worry about it.” 

In July, state education officials said virtual learning would be an option and that districts would not require department approval to provide it. In September, they said a plan for pivoting to virtual learning needed to be in place, Smith said. 

Schools can count virtual attendance towards the 75%  requirement, Smith said. 

Students who are assigned to attend 100% virtually are not included in the 75% attendance calculation, according to the department’s September memo.

Schools are allotted six forgiven days per school year  and can apply for a waiver for an additional three days, Smith said. 

While most school districts can do something online, some local officials worry about  access to online lessons and whether the district has the staff needed for virtual learning.

If the whole district is virtual that’s one thing, but if you have some students that are virtual, then you need staff for the virtual kids and the in-person kids, Smith said.

Baldwin Community Schools canceled school on Sept. 1 and 2 when attendance dropped below 75%. The district cited non-COVID illness as the reason with additional absences related to quarantine from COVID-19 exposure.

The district did not offer online classes as the laptops it purchased for students without internet were recalled, according to the district’s website. 

Reed City Area Public Schools announced a temporary closure Sept. 8 due to staffing shortages and struggles to meet the 75% attendance threshold. The district offered synchronous virtual classes for all students and sent buses equipped with Wi-Fi throughout the community to serve students without internet access.

Eastpointe Middle School closed the week of Sept. 20 due to staffing problems. The school teaches about 340 students in grades 6 and 7, said Caitlyn Kienitz, the communication and marketing coordinator for Eastpointe Community Schools. 

By moving classes online the district provided all students with instruction from a certified teacher where they wouldn’t have been able to do so in person, Kienitz said.

While online instruction has ensured students can continue to receive an education, it’s not a great long-term solution, Kienitz said. 

The Department of Education determines how online learning rules are interpreted and applied, but if circumstances fall outside of department of education rules, educators will have to turn to legislators, Smith said. 

“That memo is MDE’s interpretation for this year and the guidance for schools on how to count their people. What we’re looking at is what isn’t covered by that memo and what can we do about it,” Smith said. 

The department is working with lawmakers to resolve potential issues with state attendance requirements,  Martin Ackley, the department’s director of public and governmental affairs, wrote in an email. 

“We’re hopeful with the (department’s) guidance and the guidance on quarantine that maybe the problem won’t be as big as we fear,” Smith said.

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