5 policy changes affecting Michigan classrooms, cafeterias, and school buses

Students head back to school this fall with policy changes that affect their classrooms, cafeterias, and school buses. (Stacey Rupolo/Chalkbeat)

A new school year comes with education policy changes for Michigan’s 1.4 million schoolchildren.

Those changes affect who’s teaching them, what’s served in their cafeterias, who can step onto their school buses, and more.

Here are five changes taking effect this year.

More retired educators returning to schools

A new state law is making it easier for retirees to return to work at any school in any position while continuing to collect their full pensions. To qualify, they must wait nine months after retirement. 

Previously, unless they were filling a critical shortage area, retirees had to wait a full year and had to forfeit pensions and benefits for every month their pay exceeded one-third of their former compensation. Those limitations had been meant to protect the state’s pension liability from people who might retire early with an understanding that their principal would immediately hire them back, allowing them to simultaneously collect pensions and regular compensation. 

The new law protects against double dipping by stipulating that retirees must completely sever their employment relationship and must not expect a reemployment offer from any district.  

Michigan superintendents pushed for the change because of difficulties hiring enough teachers, substitutes, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and other school personnel. Returning retirees could fill any of those positions.

Education advocacy groups are encouraging retired educators to return to work under the new law.

“They could help fill the gap and help our schools continue to thrive as they do important work, while still earning a full pension and additional paycheck,” said Wendy Zdeb, executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.

A return to college-credit requirements for subs

Education requirements are back in effect for substitute teachers.

To alleviate a shortage of subs, lawmakers in December passed a law allowing school support staff to substitute teach as long as they had finished high school or had a graduate equivalency diploma. The temporary measure expired at the end of last school year.

That means substitutes once again have to have an associate degree, 60 college credits, or, in the case of career and technical teachers, subject-matter expertise.

“For students, that’s going to mean you’re going to have a qualified individual stepping in on an emergency basis to make sure there are not gaps in the learning,” said state Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit.

A return to paying for lunch

This school year marks the end of free lunches for all students regardless of income, a benefit that was in place since 2020.

That could be a big change, particularly for parents of second-graders who have never had to pay for school lunch and who may not know they need to apply for free or reduced-price lunches this year. Most families will have to pay roughly $3 to $5 per meal, depending on prices set by local school boards.

Free and reduced-price lunches will remain available for those who meet income guidelines, but in most districts, parents will have to apply. Income limits vary by family size. Children in a family of four, for example, would qualify for reduced-price meals (30-cent breakfasts and 40-cent lunches) if their family income is no more than $51,338, or for free meals with an income below $36,075.

In some districts, including Detroit Public Schools Community District, meals will remain free for all students, as they were before the pandemic. That’s because those districts qualified for federal community eligibility for free lunches for all students based on overall community participation in other federal programs for needy families.  

School lunches might taste a little different this year, too.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued three changes in school nutrition standards. One allows districts to increase the limit on sodium content in school meals. Another allows districts to offer flavored milks with 1% fat content instead of requiring them to be fat-free. The third waives a rule requiring school cafeterias to serve only whole grains. Now 20% of grains served may be refined.

The changes are intended to provide flexibility as school food service programs recover from pandemic-related challenges including unreliable supply chains.

Indeed, one thing that hasn’t changed much is the struggle many school cafeteria managers are having getting enough supplies and labor to meet the demands of serving more than a million meals a year.

“Students will continue to see our cafeterias struggle to get all of the products that they need,” said Diane Golzynski, director of the Office of Health and Nutrition Services for the Michigan Department of Education. “Our supply chain isn’t in its pre-pandemic state yet. We’re still struggling to get bread. We’ve been going to every store we can find, and we can’t find canned pumpkin anywhere.”

Pay for student teachers

A new state law guarantees pay for Michigan’s student teachers, alleviating the financial strain during their mandatory internships.

Student teachers, who teach full-time while paying college tuition, will now be paid $9,600 per semester they teach under a provision in the new state budget. Most Michigan education programs require one semester of student teaching, but some including Michigan State University require a full year. 

The provision was prompted by a shrinking teacher pipeline that wasn’t producing enough educators to fill Michigan’s needs.

Supporters of the stipends say the money will make it easier for prospective educators to complete their internship requirements without having to work weekend jobs to pay the bills. That means student teachers will be able to focus more fully on their students, they said.

Safer bus transportation

New laws went into effect over the last year that are meant to keep children safer on school buses.

One law prohibits unauthorized people from getting on a school bus without the driver’s permission and prohibits impeding the operation of a school bus by, for example, blocking its path. Violators could be fined up to $500.

Another new law makes it easier for police to issue tickets to drivers who illegally pass a stopped school bus. The Michigan Vehicle Code requires drivers to stop their cars 20 feet from a stopped school bus that is displaying its flashing red lights and to remain stopped until the bus resumes motion with those lights off.  

Previously, an officer had to witness the traffic violation to issue a ticket. The new law allows police to ticket drivers later if the violation is captured on a school bus’s camera system, said Carter, the law’s sponsor and a retired lieutenant in the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office.  

“You can’t have a police officer everywhere,” he said, but cameras can help. “My goal is to make sure no child gets hit.”

Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chakbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Reach her at tmauriello@chalkbeat.org.

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