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Some Local School Districts Have To Make Difficult Choice On In-Person Hours To Get State Aid

Classroom with desks space apart for social distancing. Each student's space is marked with green tape on the floor.
Okemos Public Schools
/
Students at Cornell Elementary School with the Okemos Public School district are spaced apart in classrooms.

Some local school districts are having to make a hard choice right now: keep in-person instructional time limited or forgo more than a million dollars in relief funding.

House Bill 4048 ties funding for certain districts to the number of in-person hours a school offers. That has left districts like Okemos Public Schools scrambling to change its Return to Learn plan in just a few weeks.

District officials needed to increase in-person instruction to 20 hours a week to receive $1.6 million in aid. To do that, the School Board approved making in-person classes available on Wednesdays, as well as adding 45 minutes each day to those classes for high school students. The change is more significant for younger students with virtual and in-person instruction now happening at the same time which was not originally planned.

WKAR's Sophia Saliby spoke with Okemos Public Schools Superintendent John Hood about the impact of the legislation.

Interview Highlights

On The Challenges Of Making These Instructional Changes, Especially With Younger Students

We also wanted to make sure when our parents and families made decisions on, "do I send my kid to school? Or do I keep them online?" that they couldn't make a wrong choice [and] that they were going to have the focus of the teacher, and they were going to get quality instruction either way. We know we still believe we can do that, but it's a tougher hill to climb, especially for our elementary folks as they're managing the safety protocols, managing a classroom of in-person kids while also simultaneously managing those kids that are online.

On Why He Thinks Lawmakers Did Not Give Enough Time For Districts To Adapt

If you're going to put some new rules in play for districts, at least give us some time to digest what those rules are, to get some good guidance from MDE (Michigan Department of Education). We still don't have guidance from MDE on how to interpret the law and help our staff and our families plan for the change. Because we want this change to be accessible for families to participate in. And I think it was seven or eight school days we had to make this change, and it's changing childcare plans and plans for teachers that might be on medical leave and transportation plans and professional development for our elementary teachers who we didn't give the dual audience professional development to.

On Why The District Decided To Make The Change Instead Of Forgoing The Money

We don't want to miss out on an opportunity to provide the services our students are going to need in terms of, you know, academic remediation, social [and] emotional supports, other programs that might help navigate the impacts of COVID-19 because we know we're going to have them and to be put in the position to have to scrap all our planning, reinvent that in seven days for our family, in order to be eligible for money that students in the Okemos schools need was just untenable.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: This is All Things Considered on WKAR. I’m Sophia Saliby.

Some local school districts are having to make a hard choice right now: keep in-person instructional time limited or forgo more than a million dollars in relief funding.

House Bill 4048 ties funding for certain districts to the number of in-person hours a school offers. That has left districts like Okemos Public Schools scrambling to change its Return To Learn plan in just a few weeks.

John Hood is the superintendent of Okemos Schools. He joins me now. Thanks for being here.

John Hood: You're welcome. It's a pleasure to be here with you.

Saliby: Before we talk about the impact of this legislation, I want to talk about an outbreak of COVID-19, including confirmed cases of the B.1.1.7. coronavirus variant among Okemos students, parents and staff.

Can you tell me more about what you know about this outbreak, the number of people affected [and] where it came from?

Hood: So, we know we had some positive cases on our basketball team back in February and notified community members at that time that were involved in our basketball program and close contacts. So, following the guidance of the Ingham County Health Department, we followed the health and safety protocols and really handled that in February.

And [we're] just getting word now that [a] few of those cases may have been tied to the B.1.1.7. variant, and it really wouldn't have changed our approach. We actually shut down our basketball program for a number of weeks in response to make sure we were [ensuring] the health and safety of those in the program and in the community. But certainly, you know, when the community finds out later that there were some variants involved, anxieties can rise.

So, our role here with [the] Ingham County Health Department right now is one of making sure that those best practices of social distancing, masking and sanitizing are followed and really reassuring them that the safety protocols were followed, and anyone that was a close contact was notified back in February.

Saliby: How have you had to change the schools' Return to Learn plan to be eligible for this relief money from the state?

Hood: H.B. 4048 really threw us a curveball here in the Okemos Public Schools. We had spent significant amount of time over the year evolving and re-evolving our plans to reflect the best health and safety guidance from the state and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services but also to reflect what we were thinking was best instructional practices for our students.

At secondary, we had a dual audience mode where teachers would be teaching in-person students and online students simultaneously. And we felt that was a good approach for our secondary because of the nature of classroom discussion and pacing of the curriculum and that could be handled while also managing the classroom.

At elementary, though, we came out with a different approach in terms of dividing our students. So, the teachers would only be teaching a cohort of virtual during part of the day, and then only a cohort of their in-person during another part of the day.

The law is forcing us to change that. It requires, you know, 20 hours a week of instruction, and so we had to make sure we met that requirement. And really what it's forced us to do is change the elementary approach to mimic the secondary approach where now the elementary teachers are going to have both audiences at the same time. And that provides some significant difficulty that's more unique to the elementary in terms of just classroom management, especially of our little ones.

And we also wanted to make sure when our parents and families made decisions on, "do I send my kid to school? Or do I keep them online?" that they couldn't make a wrong choice [and] that they were going to have the focus of the teacher, and they were going to get quality instruction either way.

We know we still believe we can do that, but it's a tougher hill to climb, especially for our elementary folks as they're managing the safety protocols, managing a classroom of in-person kids while also simultaneously managing those kids that are online.

Saliby: Do you think it's fair for the state to make this requirement?

Hood: To me, it's not about fair or not fair. It's more a matter of timelines and feasibility. So, if you're going to put some new rules in play for districts, at least give us some time to digest what those rules are, to get some good guidance from MDE (Michigan Department of Education). We still don't have guidance from MDE on how to interpret the law and help our staff and our families plan for the change. Because we want this change to be accessible for families to participate in.

And I think it was seven or eight school days we had to make this change, and it's changing childcare plans and plans for teachers that might be on medical leave and transportation plans and professional development for our elementary teachers who we didn't give the dual audience professional development to. We did give that to secondary to prepare them for the return. We didn't give it to elementary because that wasn't part of our planning. So, to me, it's not about fairness. It's about feasibility of timelines and trying to do what's in the best interest of our students.

Saliby: Have you reached out to the governor or state legislators to explain how this change has been difficult for you, for students [and] for parents?

Hood: We've worked with our local legislators, reached out to MDE, Dr. Rice and had some interactions with the governor's office, just to make sure they're aware of the impact.

We don't want to miss out on an opportunity to provide the services our students are going to need in terms of, you know, academic remediation, social [and] emotional supports, other programs that might help navigate the impacts of COVID-19 because we know we're going to have them and to be put in the position to have to scrap all our planning, reinvent that in seven days for our family, in order to be eligible for money that students in the Okemos schools need was just untenable.

Saliby: John Hood is the superintendent of Okemos Public Schools. Thank you for joining me.

Hood: You're welcome. It's my pleasure. Thank you.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Sophia Saliby is the local producer and host of All Things Considered, airing 4pm-7pm weekdays on 90.5 FM WKAR.
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