Report: Here’s how Michigan schools can help students recover from the pandemic.

Students line up to enter school wearing masks
Students in Grand Rapids line up for their first day of in-person school during the pandemic on January 19, 2021. (Courtesy Renee McCaul)

Michigan schools should use federal COVID-19 funding to hire more nurses, social workers, and psychologists as part of a multi-year campaign to help students recover from the pandemic.

That’s a key takeaway from a sweeping new set of recovery recommendations developed in recent months by a 29-member council of educators, public health experts, and others from Michigan’s education landscape. The council, which was appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in February, called on districts to send federal aid to the people who work directly with children and asked state lawmakers to continue that support once the federal dollars run out.  The council also asked schools to ensure that low-income students and students of color are prioritized in academic and emotional recovery efforts.

While the council’s recommendations aren’t binding, they represent a high-profile push for districts to invest in new staff using the federal funds, which are set to run out in 2024. Some school business officials have emphasized infrastructure spending rather than creating new positions.

“If it’s just one time funding that will go away, then districts concerned about legacy costs are not going to invest in the necessary supports for students,” said Kevin Polston, chair of the council and superintendent of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, a district outside of Grand Rapids with a high proportion of Latino and Black students.

The state Legislature could help, he said, by promising to increase funding for schools by the time the federal dollars run out. “Our job as a state is to make sure that the funding necessary for our students is in place so districts can have some certainty,” he said.

Districts across the state have already begun spending federal funds, and many are already following some of the council’s recommendations. For example, the Detroit Public Schools Community District has spent more than $1 million in federal funds on nursing staff since July, and it expects to spend even more on mental health.

The state’s largest teachers unions expressed support for the recommendations. “There are and will continue to be increasing demands placed on educators to meet student needs, so we must be intentional about similarly increasing respect and compensation for the profession,” said Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association, who served on the council. “Failure to do so will make the job of helping all students continue their learning post-COVID-19 even harder – and none of us can afford for that to happen.”

The council was tasked with providing ideas for helping students across the state recover academically and emotionally to the pandemic. Its final report, which was released on Wednesday, provides detailed suggestions and materials for helping districts achieve a range of goals, from helping students get on track after time away from the classroom to addressing health issues that may have gone unnoticed during the pandemic.

The recommendations include:

  • Provide high-dosage tutoring during the school day to the students who have fallen furthest behind and those with disabilities, either one-on-one or in small groups.
  • Train teachers in academic strategies that will help students catch up.
  • Create a mental health screening tool for students and train staff to provide follow-up support.
  • Meet suggested staff-student ratios for counselors (1:250), social workers (1:250), school psychologists (1:600), and nurses (1:750).

Whitmer said in a statement that the council’s report “will not only help local education leaders comprehensively address immediate challenges, but it will move us towards an education system that works better for all of our children.”

The council made several policy recommendations that would need to be taken up by the Michigan Legislature:

  • Increase state funding for schools, including additional funds for students with higher needs, such as English learners or students with disabilities.
  • Allow districts to offer virtual instruction in the fall to parents who want it.
  • Fund districts next year based on their highest enrollment count in the last three years.
  • Create financial incentives for teachers to stay in the profession, including scholarships and loan forgiveness.
  • Create innovation zones that would allow districts to opt out of state testing requirements in order to try new modes of teaching. Polston said districts would need support from teachers. Unlike innovation zones in other states, participating schools wouldn’t be able to waive any aspects of collective bargaining agreements, he said.
  • Provide free preschool to every 3- and 4-year-old in the state, regardless of income.

If any of the council’s recommendations are going to work, lawmakers must guarantee an increase in long-term funding,” said Tina Kerr, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators.

“We all know ... that without a commitment from lawmakers to invest the necessary resources for long-term results the best laid plans and blueprints will not have any positive impact on our students,” she said.

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