Questions Loom for Schools as Fiscal Year Closes, New Year Approaches

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What will it cost to keep students safe? What funding cuts are coming? Are snow days dead?

June 30 is shaping as a big day for K-12 education in Michigan and what next school year might look like.

The Governor’s “Return to Learn” Advisory Council is expected to drop its plan for reopening schools on Tuesday, which also marks the final day of the fiscal year for schools.

That is problematic, as the state’s fiscal year doesn’t conclude until Sept. 30, and schools have to submit their budgets by July 1. Yet, there isn’t clarity on how to address the projected $6.2 billion state budget gap.

Mind you, that gap is for this current fiscal year and next.

That budget timing delay has been a point of contention in the past, making it tougher for schools to plan. But it’s exacerbated this year with COVID-19-related cuts likely in both the current fiscal year that ends next week and the upcoming one.

To date, the Governor has indicated schools will open with in-person instruction barring a COVID-19 resurgence. The GOP leadership in the Legislature released its “Return to Learn” plan outlining how to use $1.3 billion in federal funds on June 23.

While next Tuesday will bring some clarity, it’s worth noting, neither plan is scheduled to be considered by the Legislature until at least a month into the summer.

What occurs come fall will depend on the realities of COVID-19. While most districts have created several contingency plans for instruction in-person or remote or a hybrid, here are some of the questions many educators, parents, and employers hope to have clarity on soon.

What will it cost to keep students safe? What do safety measures look like?
All other questions regarding next school year stem from what guidelines and procedures will be required to keep students, educators, and staff safe – and what that may cost. Class sizes, teacher counts, the number of buses all will be impacted by social distancing measures and PPE, and that has budget implications – assuming in-person instruction resumes.

How big are the funding cuts going to be?
With the School Aid Fund expected to have a projected $2.3 billion combined budget gap this current fiscal year and next, schools are bracing for significant cuts. To some extent, passing a budget and then amending it once the state passes its budget is nothing new. But preparing for retroactive cuts to the current year while setting next year’s budget without knowing the costs of something with the potential scope of COVID-19 safety measures is unprecedented. Some districts are issuing layoff notices, while others are making their best estimates and waiting for more information.

How will $1.3 billion in federal funds be used?
We’ll have a clearer sense of the Governor’s approach Tuesday. According to a one-page overview from the GOP, its plan includes $1.3 billion of COVID-19-related federal funding to support schools reopening this fall. The plan provides:

  • $800 per pupil to K-12 schools to implement robust distance learning plans and health and safety measures as kids return to classrooms.
  • $500 one-time payment to “frontline” teachers.
  • $80 million to intermediate school districts to assist schools in coordinating and implementing safe learning measures and distance learning plans.

Should schools with more low-income students face the same cuts as wealthier districts?
The inequities exposed by COVID-19 and the social justice movement underway will bring a sharper spotlight on school funding decisions and how cuts are implemented. The Education Trust-Midwest released a plan calling on state leadership to address long-standing opportunity gaps and protect students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities, English learners, and students in rural communities. This is sure to be a topic of discussion in Lansing.

How successful can remote/online learning be?
Teaching the final two full months of the school year remotely crystalized for many the value of in-person classroom instruction and exposed challenges in online learning, particularly for elementary students and those with special needs. If remote learning is needed, expect it may be implemented much differently for elementary versus high school students and that may have implications on teacher staffing. It will also raise issues about equity given varying degrees of technology between districts.

What do school sports look like amid COVID-19?
While some fall sports are beginning to hold practices, what extracurricular activities look like remains a question mark. A one-pager on the GOP-plan says school districts will be required to work with local health departments to establish protocols to ensure kids’ safety and empower parents to make decisions on what’s best for their children.

Are snow days a thing of the past?
They could be. Considering most schools are preparing several strategies for next school year with remote learning contingencies – it begs the question, couldn’t those same mechanisms be activated during wintry weather and replace traditional snow days? The GOP plan floated last week hinted it’s on some lawmakers’ minds as the plan proposes limiting forgiven snow days to two with remote learning counting toward required instruction time and days.

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