Schools shouldn’t formally count daily attendance this fall and should use last year’s enrollment numbers to calculate funding, the state’s superintendent and leaders of seven education associations say.
Tracking attendance while students are learning remotely “could be very time consuming and enormously onerous and ultimately at the expense of time spent focusing on young people,” State Superintendent Michael Rice said during a legislative hearing on Tuesday.
He and other education leaders stressed that point in a letter to top lawmakers earlier this month.
As coronavirus cases rise in Michigan and more districts announce plans to teach exclusively online this fall, school leaders still don’t know if the state will pay them for online instruction all year. Under current rules, attendance and enrollment — and, by extension, funding — are based on the number of students who physically show up in classrooms.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used executive orders to waive those rules this spring, but the orders expire on September 30.
With just weeks to go before many schools are set to open, uncertainty about critical attendance calculations is just one of many question marks facing school leaders. Also unknown: How hard will school budgets be hit by the coronavirus pandemic? How many teachers will show up? How many students?
“What’s becoming clear for next year is we may have fluctuating attendance based on are they doing distance learning, are they in person, are they out because of COVID,” said Peter Spadafore, spokesman for the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, one of the advocacy groups calling for enrollment figures to be kept the same as last year. “It’s just going to wreak havoc on certainty from a budgeting perspective.”
In Michigan, school enrollment is calculated twice a year, on so-called count days. State education funding is tied to enrollment, and low attendance on count days can be disastrous for districts.
Schools are also required to count how many students show up every day; if the number falls below 75% of the total enrollment on any given day, they may have to add another day to the end of the year or risk losing funding.
There is general agreement among Michigan’s political leaders that a change to attendance and enrollment rules is necessary. A back-to-school package approved last week by the Republican-controlled Michigan house would eliminate the requirement of physical attendance, and instead calculate enrollment based on how many students are “engaged” in learning, whether instruction takes place in-person or digitally.
The bills would require that at least 75% of students at any school were engaged in learning, on average, over a 10-day period.
Rice and other education leaders say attendance requirements should be waived entirely this coming academic year.
In a letter to top GOP lawmakers, they wrote that some distance learning is inevitable, and it is impractical to expect schools to meet anything resembling normal attendance requirements during a pandemic. The letter was signed by Rice and the heads of the Michigan Elementary and Middle School Principals Association, the Michigan Association of School Administrators, the Michigan School Business Officials, the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators, the Michigan Association of School Boards, the Middle Cities Education Association, and the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.
Rice predicts that more students than usual would change schools this fall as parents grapple with uncertainties surrounding the coronavirus. Moreover, he said, there is a “lack of clarity about the percentages of children who will be educated at a distance in any district at any given moment.”
The letter also argues that pegging enrollment to last year’s levels would reduce uncertainty for schools. The writers added that schools should still be required to provide a minimum of 180 days of instruction.
In addition to changing attendance rules, the GOP back-to-school proposal requires that all schools offer in-person instruction to students in grades K-5 this fall, and changes the state’s virtual learning and snow day policies.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said in a radio interview on Monday that he hopes to work with Whitmer to get the GOP back-to-school bills through the Senate on August 6.
“Hopefully we’ll get some of the uncertainty resolved so that schools and parents can start planning for the fall,” he said.
But Whitmer slammed the package in a statement on Monday.
“The Republican plan returns to the same Betsy Devos-style tactics of outsourcing education to for-profit business models,” the governor’s statement reads. “As educators are developing their lesson plans to prepare for any contingency this fall, the least the legislature can do is provide clarity on the number of days and hours required for instruction, and ensure that schools won’t be penalized if attendance fluctuates.”
Pamela Hornberger, Republican chair of the House education committee, said last week that if Whitmer doesn’t sign the bills, schools may not get answers about attendance rules until September.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.