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Schools, students, parents want clarity on school year

a family sitting outside together at a park
Rick Pluta
Michigan Radio

Updated March 27, 2020 at 11:59 a.m.

On a radio interview with WWJ-AM Friday morning, Governor Gretchen Whitmer said that it would be "very unlikely" that students would be returning to Michigan schools before the end of the 2019-2020 school year. 

"We are working diligently to come up with a plan to meet the needs of our kids. I think anyone who is watching what is happening globally with this pandemic knows it is probably very unlikely they're going to get back in school before the end of the year," Whitmer told WWJ-AM. "I haven't made that call yet because I want to make sure we've got a plan to meet the needs of our kids and that is what we are working on."

Original post: March 27 at 7:32 a.m.

School officials will have to make some tough decisions very soon about the rest of the school year.

One of them is whether to send layoff notices to teachers and other school staff who aren’t working. That would save money for later, in case the school year is extended to make up for days lost due to the COVID-19 outbreak

School officials have sent a letter to Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the Legislature. They’re asking the state to provide some certainty to parents, school staff, and students.

The situation is unprecedented. The answers are not obvious.

There’s been pressure growing on Governor Whitmer to simply declare the school year over. She says it’s not that simple. Whitmer says she’s willing and able to call a hiatus to classes in an emergency, but she either can’t or she won’t make the decision right now to call an end to the school year.

"One of the things that is very clear is that while the powers of the executive office are immense, especially in times like these, I cannot unilaterally address the issue around the education of our kids," she said.

Education groups are trying to figure out – well, if not the best option, the one that’s the least-worst. They’ve been holding phone conferences to discuss what might happen.

Peter Spadafore is with the Michigan Association of School Administrators. He says the hope is students will be back in school on April 14. That’s when Whitmer’s executive order that shut down schools expires.

“But we should be planning for the long term if that is not possible. So, hopefully we can put together solid plans that we don’t need to use.”

The possibilities range from simply canceling the rest of the school year to a staggered calendar for holding classes into what would have been the summer break.

Spadafore says there are problems with every option. For example, funding is an issue. People who aren’t working during the crisis aren’t paying income taxes. Many retailers are closed. That affects sales tax revenue that goes to schools.

“We’re looking at the potential that the statewide shutdown of most of the economy will have a huge impact on revenue, so we’re not even sure the money would be there to extend the school year,” Spadafore said.

Some districts are considering layoff notices so money for teacher and staff salaries can be held on case the school year is extended. As school officials are trying to plan around the unknowable, so are families.

I met up with Sonja and Greg Greenfield and their three daughters at a park in Ann Arbor.

Sonja Greenfield says they’re trying to work around the situation. Her three girls have been in touch with teachers and they’ve been doing lessons online.

“Probably my biggest question is whether this will count toward their school – will they make special arrangements because this is a special circumstance,” she said.

Greg Greenfield says he understands there are a multitude of serious issues being dealt with during this health crisis. And he says the Greenfield family can deal with whatever decisions are made in Lansing about their schools, but decisions would be helpful.

"The biggest thing we want to know right now is what the long-term ramifications of this is going to be and if we can just go ahead and make plans for them not to be going back.”

That answer does not appear to be coming soon. Lawmakers canceled a session day scheduled for this week, and there’s nothing else on the calendar before April 7 at the earliest.

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Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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