Michigan schools worry about funding loss as student Count Day looms

Students at a Detroit elementary school line up as they walk through the hallways.
Count Day is a vital part of the school funding process in MIchigan, and some school leaders want more flexibility in counting absent students. (Valaurian Waller / Bridge Detroit)

Count Day stands to look different than it did in the spring, as Michigan school district leaders worry they will lose funding for students who are in quarantine.

The state determines funding based largely on the student count. Schools may also add students who attend within a certain period after Count Day if specific requirements are met.

The event is observed twice a year across public schools in Michigan, as districts tally the number of students attending their schools. Wednesday is the first of two count days, one in October, the other in February, for more than 800 Michigan districts and charter schools. 

Principals are concerned they will lose funding for students unable to come to school on Count Day because they have COVID, have symptoms, or are in quarantine because they’ve been exposed to the coronavirus. At stake is at least $8,700 per student

In addition, student enrollment has been complicated by parents intervening in the ongoing mask mandate debate. Some parents have moved their students out of their home districts and placed them in districts that have a mask policy or don’t.

Last school year the state was more flexible with school attendance counts as many districts pivoted to partial or full remote learning. Districts could count virtual learners as long as teachers could prove their participation by documenting enough meaningful interactions about school work. 

Some lawmakers have been reluctant to provide that kind of flexibility this year because they want to encourage in-person learning. But lawmakers may have found a compromise that keeps students in school as much as possible but doesn’t penalize schools for health crises they can’t control.

The Senate education committee on Tuesday unanimously approved a bill allowing in-person schools to count virtual learners under limited circumstances.  

They must participate remotely, their teachers must document interactions, and the absences must be directly related to coronavirus transmission, exposure or a quarantine ordered by a local health department.

That flexibility would apply both to Count Day and to daily attendance. Normally, districts are ineligible for state funding on days more than 25% of students are absent. 

The bill now heads to the Senate floor. The bill has not been introduced in the House.

If passed, the legislation would be retroactive to the start of the school year. That’s why the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals recommends its members log two-way interactions with quarantined remote learners now.

“The challenge with this bill is that until it becomes law no one knows what the rules are going to be,”  association lobbyist Bob Kefgen said. “The best thing principals can do is … start moving in that direction.” 

Principals have been asking for flexibility and clarity on pupil accounting rules.

“Schools want to make sure every student they educate over the course of the year is appropriately counted so they’re getting funding to educate that kid,” Kefgen said. 

Michigan schools look to incentivize student attendance

The state’s largest school district, Detroit Public Schools Community District, is pursuing its own “October Attendance Challenge’’ to encourage students to attend class. Any student is eligible to receive a free ticket to watch the Detroit Pistons or their minor league affiliate, the Motor City Cruise, play if they attend all of their classes on Count Day. 

Other incentives, such as winning a tablet, wireless headphones, or gift cards, are being raffled for students who attend school every day over a 10-day period.

In recent years, Detroit’s home visit program has sent school employees door-knocking to track down students who haven’t attended school. Detroit’s district enrollment is currently hovering around its spring 2021 numbers, which were about 49,000. Before the pandemic, the district had nearly 51,000 students enrolled.

Dearborn Public Schools, the third-largest district in the state, has roughly 21,000 students mostly back to in-person learning, with about 600 students attending the district’s separate virtual school. The district is set to have solid attendance numbers on Count Day, district spokesperson David Mustonen said. 

“We’ve done some social media push, we’ve also had all of our schools make sure not to schedule events and certain things on Count Day.”

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