The effect the pandemic is having on education in Michigan can easily be summed up in a passage from a poem written by a metro Detroit teen.
“We’re still trying to find this new normal,” Ife Martin, a high school junior and spoken word artist, said as she recited her “School Daze.” “This isn’t online school. It’s school online. I don’t think folks understand how much harder this is.”
Martin’s poem helped center a candid discussion during Monday’s “After the Election: Where Michigan Education Policy Stands During COVID-19,” a virtual event sponsored by Chalkbeat Detroit, the Detroit Free Press, and the Education Trust-Midwest.
A diverse array of panelists came together on a number of issues. They agreed that students, parents, and educators are facing enormous challenges. They say more resources are needed to help students cope with the academic and emotional difficulties brought on by the pandemic. They also agreed that teachers need the flexibility to be creative in the virtual classroom. But there were some differences on issues related to funding schools.
Read on for some of the key takeaways and the video from the discussion.
Chalkbeat Detroit’s Koby Levin and the Detroit Free Press’ Nancy Kaffer moderated the event, which was attended by more than 100 people. Panelists were:
Rep. Brad Paquette, a Republican from Niles who serves as the vice-chair of the House Education Committee.
Rep. Darrin Camilleri, a Democrat from Brownstown Township who serves as the minority vice-chair of the House Education Committee.
Ama Russell, a senior at Cass Technical High School and a Detroit youth activist.
Cara Lougheed, an educator in Rochester Hills and the 2019 Michigan Teacher of the Year.
Michael Hutson, a parent and member of the Michigan League for Public Policy.
Challenges created by the pandemic have been immense
Russell described a first semester that included a lot of frustration and the “disconnect of not really getting to know my fellow classmates like we used to be able to do.” The biggest challenge was being overwhelmed by too much screen time.
“This had a big toll on my mental health,” said Russell, who was among a group of students that successfully lobbied for a reduction in the amount of time they had to spend in live instruction. “It was hard to keep up with seven classes, college applications, home life and COVID-19.”
Hutson said virtual learning has required “a great deal of parent participation.” He works from home, so he’s able to dedicate that time. But not every parent is so lucky, and “this presents a huge issue for kids that are struck trying to figure out how to use technology.”
Lougheed, a high school teacher with about 150 students, said she’s noticed that for many students, the typical stresses of school have been heightened because of the pandemic. She’s seen that with her own children as well.
The things that bothered students and left them feeling stuck before are now exacerbated by the pandemic. “A small frustration is a huge frustration now,” Lougheed said. “As parents and teachers, we have to really keep a close eye on how this is affecting our kids.”
Lougheed said she spends a lot of time checking on her students.
“I’m always juggling. I’m always trying to make sure all the kids are seen, all the kids are heard.”
Students need more resources
Asked in a virtual poll what school leaders and policy makers should prioritize right now, half of the audience said the emphasis needs to be on helping students with special needs, students from low-income homes, and students who are English language learners.
Of the other options, 29% said the priority should be on improving remote learning, 11% said the focus should be on learning loss, and 8% said it should be on getting students back into physical classrooms.
Hutson was among those who want better virtual instruction. He said schools will need to invest in additional resources to help students. Therapy, he said, is among the resources students will need.
“In order to make things right … we definitely need all hands on deck.”
How the state could help
Camilleri, a former teacher, said Michigan could help by reducing standardized testing. Doing so would relieve “some of the stress and burden on our kids and educators,” he said.
“And as we know the data that is coming out of these standardized tests, particularly now, is not very useful,” said Camilleri, who supports pausing required state exams during the pandemic. “So I want to make sure we’re utilizing our time wisely to give our kids the skills they need.”
Paquette, who is also a former teacher, had similar views. He said teachers ultimately should have a say in determining how much standardized testing is given.
“The standardized testing is not going to go away until teachers are empowered and able to say (whether) this is worth a degree of goodness for our kids or not,” Paquette said. “We need to have teachers actually weighing on policy making and what’s best for kids.”
Should wealthy Michigan residents pay more in taxes to help schools?
“Let’s do it,” Camilleri said. “It is time to make sure people with an extraordinary amount of means pay their fair share. We’re not talking about regular Michiganders. We’re not talking about even upper middle class folks. We’re talking about the richest people in our state who have for a very long time paid the exact same tax rate as those of us at the lower end of the economic spectrum.”
Camilleri said the need to address shortcomings in the state’s school funding system existed before the pandemic. The pandemic is creating even more funding challenges, he said.
“The state will need to address the additional resources students will need. It’s going to cost us more money, and we need to have a frank conversation about that. I am very tired of us pretending that we’ve spent enough, because we all know that we haven’t.”
Paquette said raising taxes “is something I philosophically, running as a conversative, am opposed to.”
Still, he said “a lot of people,” are willing to invest more in education. But “they just want to see it done a little bit different.” That means ensuring more money is going into the classroom, where it will benefit students and teachers the most.
“Before any of that conversation (about spending more on schools) can happen, I think we really need to show taxpayers that their dollars are really going to student learning and student growth.”
Finding silver linings amid the challenges
As challenging as the pandemic has been on schools, several of the panelists pointed to some changes they hope remain.
Russell likes the abbreviated schedule that has her taking live classes half the day and working independently the rest of the day.
“It really works for an abundance of high school students,” she said.
Hutson said he appreciates the additional bonding time he has with his three children.
“I like the time we’re able to spend with them to help them address the school problems they’re having,” Hutson said.
In Lougheed’s case, the pandemic has helped her learn technological skills “that I will absolutely keep doing in the future.”
It has also helped Lougheed connect better with students. Some of her students who might not ordinarily reach out in a face-to-face setting are doing so now. They stay after class to chat. They ask for individual sessions during office hours. They email with her.
“I feel like I am getting to know a lot of them. And I don’t know if that would happen in the same way. Some of these kids … they like the distance that the screen provides. Online learning has not been terrible for everyone.”
Martin, who is part of the Detroit organization InsideOut Literary Arts, summed it up best in her poem.
“I … kind of like the freedom, the chance to sculpt my life as I wish. My stress hasn’t dissipated but I think I handle it better. There’s more time to get to know me. I’m hypnotized by life itself. I’m living in this school daze.”