Michigan Schools Face Host of Issues Associated with COVID-19 Shutdown

The closure of all K-12 school buildings, while a prudent step in fighting the spread of COVID-19, creates pressing issues for school administrators, staff, parents, and students. In this Rapid Blog, Varnum Law attorneys Charyn Hain and Ashleigh Draft break down the legal issues at stake. This essay is their own and does not reflect the views of Rapid Growth Media or its parent company, Issue Media Group.
On March 12, 2020 Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and State Superintendent Michael Rice announced that all K-12 school buildings must be closed from Monday, March 16 to Sunday April 5, 2020 to slow the spread of COVID-19. Several other states and large urban school districts have implemented similar measures, with even more expected to follow suit.

The closure of all K-12 school buildings, while a prudent step in fighting the spread of COVID-19, creates pressing issues for school administrators, staff, parents, and students. The Michigan Department of Education has committed to assisting school districts, academies, and private schools in these challenging and unprecedented times.

One looming question for schools and families is whether student testing and assessment will continue as planned. Some assessments, such as the M-STEP, have tests scheduled from mid-April to mid-May. These annual tests monitor student academic growth and inform education policy, but teachers and lawmakers both question whether it is wise to assess students after they have lost three weeks of in-class instruction.

The M-STEP in particular is tied to a controversial new Michigan law, approved in 2016, that stops third-graders from advancing to fourth grade if they are reading a full grade level behind. It is currently unclear whether this third grade reading retention law will be enforced. Annual state testing is also required by certain federal laws. On March 17, Michigan's State Superintendent Michael Rice and Casandra Ulbrich, president of the State Board of Education, released an open letter to Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, calling on her to cancel or waive the requirement to conduct such testing this year.

Of course, student assessment is just one of the issues facing districts and schools. Schools have long provided much more than just academic instruction—schools are a source of stability, daily nutrition, and even medical care for many students. Teachers and administrators are working hard to continue providing these supports along with academic instruction. By way of example, as of Tuesday, March 17 Grand Rapids Public Schools has opened eight nutrition service "grab and go" meal sites that provide daily breakfast and lunch to all students aged 18 years and younger. The Grand Rapids Public Schools' "grab and go" meals are not limited to GRPS students.

Teachers and administrators are also adapting student instruction, acutely aware that internet access and web-based remote learning may not be available in all households. Top of mind for many families is whether the school calendar will be extended. Currently, Michigan schools that receive state funding are required to have 180 days of "pupil instruction," although six days can be forgiven for situations outside of the school district's control, such as snow days. Although some lawmakers have expressed willingness to make an exception this year, no legislation has yet been forthcoming, and it is possible that some days may need to be made up at the end of the year. 

School closings also bring concerns about financial hardship for families that must take time off from work to stay with children, and school employees whose pay could be affected by the closure. State and federal governments are moving quickly to address these concerns through legislation and Executive Order. For instance, on Monday, March 16, Governor Whitmer announced the temporary expansion of unemployment benefits for Michigan workers. Among other provisions, the Governor's order states that workers who have unanticipated family or child care responsibilities related to COVID-19 or school closures may be eligible for unemployment benefits. 

Although families, schools, and administrators are all facing a number of unknowns in this rapidly-developing situation, schools' and parents' commitment to kids has not changed. We will continue to provide information and counsel as schools navigate these unprecedented times.

Charyn Hain is a member of Varnum's Litigation and Trial Services Practice Team. A significant part of her practice includes representation of school districts and institutes of higher education. She has significant experience preparing school policies, representing school boards, providing counsel on student affairs, school discipline matters, representing districts and higher education clients in Title IX as well as other matters investigated by the Office of Civil Rights, and campus safety and health issues.

Ashleigh is an associate attorney currently working with the labor and employment group. She also works with higher education clients and provides support on a variety of litigation matters. Ashleigh’s experience includes serving as a legal extern for the Michigan Court of Appeals Research Division. She also clerked for Michigan Appeals Court Judge Jane Beckering. Prior to law school, Ashleigh served organizations in the higher education and nonprofit sectors in various development and communications roles. 

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