Michigan schools, students, parents want clarity on school year

Mar 27, 2020

School officials in Michigan 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 extend to make up for days lost due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

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

There’s been pressure growing on 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,” Whitmer says.

Education groups are trying to figure out, 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," he says. "So, hopefully we can put together solid plans that we don’t need to use.”

The possibilities range from simply cancelling 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 effects 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 says.

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.

Sonja and Greg Greenfield and their three daughters are 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 says.

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,” he says.

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