Opinion: As we plan for life post-pandemic, let’s pivot to a new normal

By Michael Rice

In the midst of the pandemic, many people want one thing: a return to normal. Who can blame them?

In few aspects of our country is this yearning for pre-pandemic normalcy more evident than in education. Most of us want a return to all school buildings being open … and full of children. We realize — now more than ever — the power of in-person instruction, of the warmth and wonderment, smiles and satisfactions, affirmations and aspirations, that school can offer. I too want all schools open, not most as we currently have.

Yet a return to pre-pandemic education is not enough. As we plan for next year, as we do every winter, we need to pivot to a new, better normal — not simply back to where we were pre-pandemic.

We need to aspire to this goal for two reasons: (1) many of our children haven’t learned as much as they should have in the last year and we have work to do to catch them up to where they should be and (2) we were improving schools in the years before the pandemic, with an understanding that we had, to paraphrase Robert Frost, miles to go before we sleep.

As we aspire to higher goals, we need to be guided by what we knew before the pandemic and what the pandemic has taught us.

Our vision for improving public schools is incorporated in our state’s new strategic education plan, approved in August by the State Board of Education after input from across the state. This plan includes eight goals: expansion of 4-year-old early childhood education to all eligible children; improvement of early literacy; improvement of health, safety, and wellness; expansion of secondary school programs; increase in graduation rates; increase in postsecondary credential rates; addressing of the teacher shortage; and provision of adequate and equitable school funding.

Over the last several years, Michigan has improved its performance on many of these goals. Yet an enormous amount of work remains.

It’s not just pre-pandemic lessons from which we need to draw. We also need to learn from lessons from the pandemic.

Home technology can be very helpful but, for most children, serves best as a support for in-person instruction, not a primary means of instruction. We should continue to narrow and ultimately close the digital divide in the state and nation, not as a substitute for, but as a supplement to, public education.

Many public school partners have stepped up during the pandemic: food banks, child care providers, libraries, and other youth-serving organizations. Their support of our children and partnership will be even more critical as we seek to provide our children post-pandemic with wraparound services that extend beyond the school day and year.

To that point: Many students will have received less instruction this year than any year in their schooling. As districts prepare for next year, they need to consider whether all of their students—or particularly vulnerable groups of students, including children with profound special needs, beginning English learners, and fledgling readers, among others—need more time than the state minimum 180 days and 1,098 hours of instruction.

This is a critical consideration. One could argue that all children need more instructional time next year, given that they have all been disrupted in their education to some degree this year. At the barest minimum, especially vulnerable children will need additional services. Child by child, districts will have to reflect on what is needed and how to meet these needs.

Children’s social and emotional needs, so evident to many of us pre-pandemic, have received added attention during the pandemic. MDE has begun a social and emotional learning (SEL)/children’s mental health network and allocated more than $7 million from its education equity fund for children’s mental health to local school districts. Governor Whitmer and the state legislature allocated a similar amount for related services as well. Local school districts have engaged in SEL work more than ever before. We need to broaden and deepen our SEL professional development efforts in the coming year.

Importantly, we need more staffing in this area. All staff members need to be trained in and take responsibility for SEL as we build schools that more substantially serve children’s needs, but districts also need more social workers, counselors, nurses, and school psychologists to serve children properly.

We also need to reduce our class sizes, especially at the early elementary level, where educators are laying the literacy and math skill foundation that will be necessary for student success as they continue in school.

Nothing is more critical to the success of young people in school than literacy skills. It was abolitionist Frederick Douglass who wrote, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

We can continue to improve educator knowledge and use of our literacy essentials as a means of improving students’ technical knowledge of reading and writing. Additionally, we need to increase student engagement in reading by selecting and sharing more diverse literature representative of who our children are and, by extension, who we are as a state and nation.

School funding is another issue. Six studies in six years have said the same thing: we underfund Michigan public education, to the detriment of our children. The most comprehensive of these studies, the 2018 School Finance Research Collaborative (SFRC) study, noted that different children have different needs, and different needs have different costs. To fully fund Michigan’s school children according to SFRC recommendations, billions of additional dollars are needed.

The 2019 MSU study noted that, from 1995 to 2015, Michigan was last in the country in inflation-adjusted total education revenue increase and third to last in the country in inflation-adjusted per student education revenue increase. The last few years, though better on average, haven’t permitted significant staffing changes in our schools.

The recent federal coronavirus relief act will help districts across the state and country and, with non-recurring funds, will permit many children to benefit from improved services next year. While beneficial, there are limitations to these funds, including but not limited to their one-time nature.

Of encouragement is President-elect Biden’s support of universal preschool; the doubling of the number of social workers, counselors, and psychologists; and large increases in funding for poor children and students with special needs. Whatever materializes needs to be recurring, available to serve children over many years, and not one-and-done funding. Our children’s needs endure; so should their funding.

What does each child need? How do we provide it? As educators and policy makers wrestle with the broad policy questions of how to pivot to a new, better normal at the state and national levels in education, these will be the important questions at the local level.

We should be under no illusions that the ideas above — or any significant ideas for improving public education — will be easy to drive in their totality. We can accomplish a great deal in the next eight months and lay the groundwork for more substantial improvement in the midterm as we plan for and implement this new, better normal.

It can’t simply be a return to normal. Our children deserve more…and better.

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