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MDE says online learning can't count towards K12 instruction, leaving parents, students in limbo

student using computer
Annie Spratt
The Michigan Department of Education says online learning will not count as classroom time while school is out due to the coronavirus crisis.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer continues to issue emergency orders that close public places in an effort to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.

The governor closed schools for three weeks with the expectation that they would re-open April 6. That order can be extended and that now appears likely.

That leaves students, families, administrators, and teachers in limbo. Will students have to take sumer school? Will they be held back a grade if there's no opportunity to finsh the school year? They’re wondering how to ensure students are getting the education they deserve under this new reality.

When the governor ordered schools closed, Novi Superintendent Steve Matthews says his district was ready with a Plan B to serve Novi’s 6,400 students. He says Novi spent years developing an online platform for students, and helped parents learn to use it, too.

“We understand that there is a significant difference between in-person classroom instruction and online instruction, but when the school closure was announced, everyone was given kind of direction or marching orders or at least the assumption was made that the state wanted us to continue providing instructional opportunities for our students,” says Matthews.

So Matthews says it was a big disappointment when the Michigan Department of Education announced last week that online learning would not count toward a district’s school days and the state funding that goes with it.

“To just come out and say that it’s not going to count at all kind of gives the message, unintentionally or not, that the experiences our students are having at home are not meaningful,” he says.

"Do we have to look at, for the first time ever, school during the summer? Do we have to look at some in June, some in August, but still have a summer break?" - Don Wotruba

In a statement, Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Rice said state law leaves the department no options. Schools must be able to show 75% attendance to qualify for a day’s state payment. And Rice says the state does not have a system right now to measure online attendance.

Don Wotruba with the Michigan Association of School Boards says Rice made the right call.

“In the short term, that’s a legitimate place to land,” Wotruba says.

Wotruba says fairness and resources are both issues. Not every child has a computer at home. There are still parts of the state that don’t have access to high-speed internet. Not every district has robust online learning platforms – like Novi’s.   

Wotruba says the state should, if it comes to that, be ready to extend the school year.

“Do we have to look at, for the first time ever, school during the summer?” he asks. “Do we have to look at some in June, some in August, but still have a summer break?”

But the Department of Education’s position is controversial inside state government. Governor Whitmer declared herself “dismayed” by the decision.

“We are going to work to make sure that kids are getting the instruction or the equivalent of an instruction as needed so that they can finish this year having gotten the education they were supposed to get,” she says.

Whitmer also says schools should not hold students back a grade or refuse to allow seniors to graduate due to lost instruction days.

And Whitmer, a Democrat, is also coming under pressure – from Republicans in the Legislature.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield sent her a letter asking, among other things, that Whitmer use the emergency powers she invoked to close school buildings to allow online learning to count toward state aid payments. The governor says she’s ready to work with the Legislature on a plan.

The House and the Senate are tentatively scheduled to meet on Wednesday.


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