East Lansing Public School Families – Including Governor’s – Facing Confusion, Frustration

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Sunday, March 22, 2020, 4:00 pm
By: 
Emily Joan Elliott and Alice Dreger

Above: Photo of the ELHS cafeteria as it emptied out on the last day of school, by Gary Caldwell.

There’s one parent of a pair of East Lansing High School students whose frustration with the current educational situation is perhaps a little more visible than others’: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Whitmer’s two children attend ELHS and, like a lot of parents, she seems frustrated by guidance coming down to local school districts from the Michigan Department of Education.

Despite the looming possibility of a long-term closure of public schools, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) declared on Friday, March 20, that any distance learning that is provided during the emergency will not count toward educational time.

In Friday’s press release, MDE officials stated, “Existing state law and ensuring equitable education access for all students prompted the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) today to notify local school districts that distance learning strategies in individual schools and districts will not be counted as official student instructional time during the COVID-19 school closure.”

MDE officials argued that the department must ensure quality education for all, and internet connectivity disparities are just too great across the state.

In the release, the state superintendent said “the state legislature should change state law to permit days out of school for this public health emergency to be counted as instructional days. Last year, the state legislature took similar action with the polar vortex January 29 through February 2, 2019.”

Gov. Whitmer went public with her unhappiness with how this all came down. Taking to Facebook, she wrote that the memo from the MDE “caused confusion & panic among schools, teachers, & students.”

In her post, Whitmer seemed to contradict the MDE’s statement, writing, “Let me be clear: the memo does not mean that school work done during mandatory school closure won’t ‘count’ toward grades, credits, or graduation. In the coming days, I’ll be working to ensure that our seniors graduate and that no child is held back as a result of the COVID-19 school closure.”

Whitmer declared on March 13 that all K-12 schools had to close through April 5. Following that, ELPS administrators scrambled to put together an emergency response in just a few hours.

At that time, Superintendent Dori Leyko said that ELPS students would not be expected to complete any schoolwork or homework. She explained that the district was, “sending home book bags with K-5 students today and intend[s] to distribute books to families with our meal distribution through the closure. As much as we care about academic growth, our main focus is meeting students’ basic needs at this time and providing equitable opportunities for all students.”

This led some parents to question whether ELPS was trying so hard to be equitable that they were sacrificing all children’s learning during the emergency. Several asked why — if the issue was lack of computer tablets and internet access — the district wasn’t working to get every child those resources.

On Friday, March 20, Glenn Mitcham sent a letter to ELPS families explaining why organized distance education isn’t happening. As the Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment for ELPS, Mitcham explained that the MDE’s guidance from March 18 indicated that districts should ask the following questions:

  • Do all students have access to appropriate learning devices?
  • Do all students have access to the internet?
  • Can the district successfully support the needs of all learners, including students with Individualized Educational Programs (IEP), students with a 504 plan, English learners (EL), and other students who may need accommodations?
  • Have educators previously participated in professional learning opportunities that prepared them to transition teaching and learning online successfully?
  • Have students had enough prior exposure to blended or online learning to be successful?
  • Does the district have online tools available to effectively support instruction (i.e., a learning management system)?

If a school district could not answer yes to all these questions, it should not offer online instruction as a replacement to in-person contact hours according to the MDE.

According to Mitcham, because all students are entitled to an education and accommodations, those with physical and learning disabilities must somehow be accommodated, and that clearly can become trickier with online educational approaches.

But Leyko confirmed for ELi that the approach being taken reflects guidance from MDE — guidance that apparently could be disregarded during an emergency like this.

So far, ELPS seems to be staying the course, taking the approach that if every child can’t be educated, none will. In some senses, this is all a moot point because of MDE having declared on Friday that distance learning doesn’t count for any child.

In an update for high school students released on Friday, the district continued to say, “There is no required coursework for students to be completed during this break from school.”

Things are likely to get harder before they get easier. The coronavirus pandemic is only growing in severity across the state, reaching 787 confirmed cases yesterday, with 11 of those cases in Ingham County.

Some ELPS parents, who are plenty stressed out by the public health and economic situations, tell ELi they are frustrated that many children are home without much to do or guidance on how to proceed. Some point out that only the most privileged families are currently finding ways to have their children continue to be educated.

Suffice it to say that, at this point, ELPS families are waiting to understand what the state allows and what to expect here.

Related coverage:

ELi has a special section dedicated to our reporting on COVID-19 for East Lansing. See it here and sign up for ELi's mailer to stay informed.

Update: Two hours after publication of this article, Leyko sent an update to ELPS parents. See it here.

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