Governor Whitmer just signed the "Return to Learning" Package: What that means for you and your family

08/20/2020

Today, Governor Whitmer signed the “Return to Learn” Package into law. The “Return to Learn” Package consists of three legislative bills, House Bills 5911, 5912, and 5913 and is the result of a bipartisan effort between Governor Whitmer and the Legislature. The new laws will impact every single K-12 student in Michigan for the 2020-2021 school year, but especially students who receive special education services. Because the bills create several changes and new requirements, this post will only highlight those most relevant to families and students attending public school districts.

 

The Basics of the Bills

House Bill 5912 - H.B. 5912, 2020 100th Legis., Reg. Sess. (Mich. 2020).

  • Waives the requirement that a district must have 75% attendance on any day to be eligible for the full amount of state aid and instead requires, for the 2020-2021 school year only, one 2-way interaction between students and at least one teacher each month for at least 75% of the school’s student population.

  • Defines 2-way interaction as (1) communication between a student and a student’s teacher, (2) initiated by one party and followed by a response from the other party, and (3) “relevant to course progress or course content for at least 1 of the courses in which the student is enrolled.”

    • Requires responses to be in response to the teacher-initiated communication.

    • Communication includes, but is not limited to, e-mail, phone, text messaging, and in-person meeting.

  • Waives the requirement that school districts must provide “at least 1098 hours and 180 days” of instruction in a school year and instead requires, for the 2020-2021 school year only, that student instruction be provided through a format “that results in an amount of hours and days necessary to deliver the educational or course content that would have been delivered in 180 days and 1,098 hours . . . and that would have led to course completion.”

  • Allows the format of instruction to include in-person at a school or other location, online, digitally, other remote means, live sessions, pre-recorded sessions, or any combination thereof.

House Bill 5913 - H.B. 5913, 2020 100th Legis., Reg. Sess. (Mich. 2020).

  • Requires school districts to operate under “an extended COVID-19 learning plan” approved by the ISD or other appropriate authorizing body to receive state funding.

  • Requires the COVID-19 learning plan to include all of the following:

    • Why the learning plan is necessary

    • “The educational goals to be achieved for the 2020-2021 school year,” that are measurable, include increased student achievement, and include an assurance the district will choose and administer a benchmark assessment aligned to state standards.

    • How the district will deliver instruction

    • How core academic instruction will expose students to grade level standards “in the same scope and sequence” as planned for in-person learning and how student progress will be graded

    • How the district will ensure students are provided equitable access to technology and internet if instruction is provided virtually

    • “[H]ow the district will ensure that students with disabilities will be provided with equitable access to instruction accommodation.”

    • Guidelines, created in conjunction with the local health department, for methods of instruction based on local key metrics, such as the trend of COVID-19 cases, health care capacity, and testing and tracing infrastructure, among other things

    • An assurance that when returning to in-person learning, K-5 students will be prioritized.

    • A requirement that two 2-way interactions (as defined in HB 59212) occur between a student and at least one of their teachers each week for at least 75% of the student population.

  • Requires the district to meet every thirty days after the learning plan is approved to reconfirm how instruction is being provided and allow for public comment from students’ parents.

  • Requires school districts to submit plans for approval no later than October 1, 2020 and to post approved plans on their school website.

  • Requires school districts to create a progress report for the educational goals described in the learning plan no later than February 1, 2021 and the last day of the 2020-2021 school year, and to post these reports to the school’s website.

  • Requires school districts to administer at least one benchmark assessment for both reading and math proficiency within the first 9 weeks of school and by the last day of the 2020-2021 school year. Schools must report this data to the State no later than June 30, 2021 and the Michigan Department of Education must issue a report by August 1, 2021 to the Governor and Legislature identifying the number of students “significantly behind grade level” for the purpose of identifying learning loss because of COVID-19.

 

What this practically means for students and families

 

            Unfortunately, for many students, this means that the 2020-2021 school year will be one that results in minimal, if any, concrete learning. Through its intent that the, “extended COVID-19 learning plans . . . provide districts with maximum flexibility to adapt their educational programs for some or all pupils,” (H.B. 5913, 2020 100th Legis., Reg. Sess. (Mich. 2020)) the Return to Learning Package ignores the real needs of the students to access and make progress in their educational programs.

 

            The most obvious flaw of the package is the absence of any enforcement mechanism. The new laws do not provide parents with a clear avenue to hold their school accountable for not implementing any of the bills’ requirements, such as the weekly 2-way interactions set forth in HB 5913. Under the laws as written, if a school district fails to interact with a student for 4 consecutive weeks or fails to meet the district’s assurance that students would have equitable access to technology, that student is out of luck. That student is now a month behind in their learning through no fault of their own.

 

            The other primary flaw of the package is its lack of clear and consistent standards. The requirements as given tend to lead to more questions than answers. What is, “an amount of hours and days necessary to deliver the educational or course content that would have been delivered in 180 days and 1,098 hours . . . and that would have led to course completion”? How is that standard determined? For the extended learning plan, how does a district decide its goals? What is an appropriate goal? What does it mean to provide equitable access of instruction to students with disabilities? Michigan already sees substantial education inequalities between districts based on racial and socioeconomic composition – by failing to create minimum standards that all districts must meet, the Return to Learning Package provides an opportunity for the education achievement gaps to grow even wider.

To leave you with some hope…

 

            As written, the bills provide little support for parents and students to ensure children continue learning through the COVID-19 pandemic. However, not all hope is lost. There are actions parents can take to work with their school district and advocate for their children.

 

  1. TAKE DATA. Take notes of what learning opportunities and methods of instruction the school district is providing. Note how your child is performing on these assignments and how engaged your child is in the lessons. Do they continue getting up and walking away from the computer? Do they finish a 10-quesiton worksheet in 2 minutes, or in one hour? What are they saying about the work and the lessons? Where do they seem to struggle? Where do they seem to excel?

  2. COMMUNICATE (respectfully) WITH THE SCHOOL. Take your data and show it to your child’s teacher. Schedule a video conference or phone call to go over what you’ve been seeing and experiencing at home. Try to brainstorm solutions together for any concerns that arise. When communicating with the teacher, or anyone from the school district, always be polite and respectful. Even when you are frustrated or upset, remember that everyone is human, this is a crazy and stressful time for all of us, and you accomplish more when you’re polite and kind. *Be sure to document these conversations in writing to refer back to later, if necessary.* Also, attend the school board meetings and share your thoughts about how the district plan is working – both good and bad.

  3. IF YOU THINK YOUR CHILD MAY NEED SPECIAL EDUCATION SERVICES, REQUEST AN EVALUATION. If you think your child is struggling more than they should due to a disability (diagnosed or undiagnosed), and you think they would benefit from extra supports and services, request an evaluation for special education services under IDEA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Put this request in writing and send it to your school principal. If you don’t think your child needs special education services, but still think they could benefit from some additional supports, talk with the teacher and ask what resources and interventions are available.

 

*Special note for students receiving special education services*

            If your child is currently receiving special education services through an IEP or a 504 Plan, remember: the school’s obligation to provide your child with a Free and Appropriate Public Education has not changed. The school district is still required to ensure that your child is receiving the services and accommodations necessary for them to meet challenging and ambitious goals, as outlined in the student’s IEP, and to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances. If you believe your child’s IEP is not being followed or it needs to be revised for no longer meeting your child’s needs, you have the right to request an IEP meeting at any time. Take data to support why you believe your child’s education needs are not being met and they are not being provided with FAPE, present your data to the IEP team, and, together with the IEP team, revise the IEP as needed.

 

 

***This blog contains information only - no legal advice is being provided and you are not a client of the firm unless we have signed a representation agreement with you. If you believe you need legal assistance you may contact our firm at info@babinskilaw.com or by calling (810) 447-0662.***

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