Chalkbeat Detroit Bureau Chief, Lori Higgins, talks with Christy about the biggest issues she and the Chalkbeat education reporting team will be tracking in 2021. Among them: the return to in-person learning, testing and accountability, and whether or not students will return at all.


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Christy McDonald  Well, it is the new year and kids are heading back into school and really reaching the end of their first semester and a lot of districts across the state are having to make difficult decisions about how they’re moving forward.  Joining me now is Lori Higgins, longtime education reporter in the city and now the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Detroit.  Lori, it’s good to see you, Happy New Year.

Lori Higgins, Bureau Chief, Chalkbeat Detroit  Happy New Year to you, Christy, thank you for having me on today.

Christy McDonald  You just came out with a list of six things that you are looking for when it comes to education in Michigan for 202, and I really love the list.  And the first one is, if we take a look at would be return to in-person learning, exactly what so many districts are grappling with.

Lori Higgins, Bureau Chief, Chalkbeat Detroit  Exactly, you know, this week, you know, schools came back and, you know, some came back to in-person learning for the first time in a few weeks or a couple of months.  And some are playing a waiting game because we don’t know right now what kind of spike, we’ll see from the Christmas holiday if people spend a lot of time with relatives.  And so, you know, people are playing a waiting game. You have districts like the Detroit School District, that is, they were supposed to come back on January 11th, and they’ve delayed it until February, because the positivity rate in the city is still higher than their threshold.  They generally are looking at a five percent positive rate and it’s about a little over six percent right now.  So, you know, these are really difficult decisions for districts, because, you know, kids aren’t necessarily thriving and virtual schooling.  And they know that face to face works best for most kids.  But they’re also dealing with, you know, safety concerns that staff are raising and some parents as well

Christy McDonald  And that really goes into the second point you raise is the vaccine effect.  And we are still waiting to see a large-scale rollout of people being vaccinated and how that will make a difference going into spring.

Lori Higgins, Bureau Chief, Chalkbeat Detroit  What we’re hearing so far is a little concerning.  A large number of health care workers are declining the vaccine not only in Michigan, but across the country.  We were already worried about whether or not, you know, teachers and other school staff would be taking the vaccine in large numbers.  When we posted a story recently about this, most of the reaction from teachers was, no, I’m not going to get this vaccine.  Whether or not people get the vaccine will determine whether schools can come back full time in person.

Christy McDonald  So if we still have, you know, virtual school and kids are online learning, the next point really is improving the online learning in the complaints that we’re hearing from kids.  And I’m even hearing in my in my own house is, you know, fatigue of being on screen so long, not having the interaction, not feeling that they’re connecting with their teachers and with other kids.  How do you even improve that when you’re still looking at should we be back in or not?

Lori Higgins, Bureau Chief, Chalkbeat Detroit  Right, I mean, a lot of districts are spending probably a lot of time on the safety issues and on these debates about returning or not.  I think that districts are starting to look at how to improve online learning.  The Detroit school district, for instance, is looking at, you know, creating a task force to recommend changes.  You know, students have been very vocal about the fact that this is too much for them. This is learning in a way that they’re not used to. And don’t get me, there are students who are thriving in this.  There are students who find this to be the best way of learning.  But what you know, what I’m hearing from most students is that this is really difficult.

Christy McDonald  Looking at the next point you made, will students return?  They are down 53,000 students across the state and over 10,000, Lori, are unaccounted for, meaning they don’t even know where those students went.

Lori Higgins, Bureau Chief, Chalkbeat Detroit  Exactly, that number is actually 13,000, which is a huge number in Michigan.  And we’re seeing this not just in Michigan, but it’s happening across the country.  Yes, so these are students where they have not notified their schools about what they’re doing.  And so, we don’t know, it could be that some of these kids are in a quality learning environment, but it could also be that they’re not and they may eventually return to, you know, public schools.  And the question is what, what kind of education have they gotten in that year that they have essentially been lost?  But it’s not just that 13,000 we have the kindergarten enrollment is down by 13,000 as well.  And that’s an indication that a lot of parents are delaying enrolling their kids in kindergarten in a state where we are increasingly talking about the importance of improving early literacy.

Christy McDonald  And that really kind of brings us to the next point you’re talking about, which is a focus on literacy.  And if you have kids who have been kept home for that first year of kindergartner, had been home schooled and then get put back into public school.  Let’s say that they are the same level, let’s say that they’re behind, and we had that third-grade literacy law that had been suspended for this year.  That’s the question of how behind kids will be or maybe won’t be.

Lori Higgins, Bureau Chief, Chalkbeat Detroit  Exactly. and we don’t know.  I mean, the question is still out there about whether or not the legislature will suspend that law again this year.  You know, last year, school districts were supposed to hold back students who were in third grade, but far behind academically.  But, you know, they suspended it for a year. You know, there’s no indication what might happen this year.  And you’re right, I mean, if there are kids who are not being educated right now or not being educated adequately, we could see far more students who are eligible to be held back this year than previously predicted.

Christy McDonald  Testing and accountability, we all know that the standardized tests for Michigan always come in the springtime.  That we’ve, Michigan has opted out of that or they’ve been waived out of that.

Lori Higgins, Bureau Chief, Chalkbeat Detroit  Not for this year, they were waived, the US Department of Education issued waivers last year.  So, we didn’t have to do the state testing last year.  Michigan is among a number of states that have asked for another waiver for this year because they don’t think that it’s, it makes sense to test students during a pandemic.  But that waiver has not come, and so we could be heading into a situation where students will have to sit down and take this standardized test beginning in March or April.

Christy McDonald  And you sit there, and you say, if we don’t, if those students don’t take that test, how do you find out where we are?  How do you find out what’s happened or what kind of learning loss has been over the last year or so

Lori Higgins, Bureau Chief, Chalkbeat Detroit  Districts have their own tools, and the state actually is requiring part of the return to school legislation that was passed over the summer.  Requires that schools test students a couple of times, at least two times during the school year, to measure how much growth.  There should be no question about how much learning loss they’ve experienced, because districts are constantly assessing them on what they call benchmark assessments.