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State superintendent weighs in on the state of education

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Michigan State Superintendent of Schools Michael Rice discussed the issues facing educators in the state during a visit to Fraser High School on April 21.

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FRASER — Teacher retention, caring for students’ needs and reorienting students after two uncertain years of COVID-19 are among the most pressing issues facing the state’s education system, according to Michigan State Superintendent of Schools Michael Rice.

Rice came to Fraser High School on April 21 to honor local teacher Stacie Yokhana for winning the prestigious Milken Education Award and discussed the state of public schools in Michigan during the visit.

“The purpose of this visit is to get into the school and enjoy and honor children and the staff,” he remarked. “It’s been a difficult two years and we are returning to some measure of normalcy in public schools and this is one of many opportunities to enjoy the moment and honor our schools.”

At the top of the list of areas Rice thinks Michigan public schools need to address is attracting people to the teaching profession and getting them to stay in Michigan.

“I would argue that the biggest issue facing Michigan’s public schools is recruitment and retention of staff members. Right now, it’s the seventh goal of the state’s strategic education plan. We prepare the requisite number of people to be teachers but that doesn’t mean that all the people we prepare want to go into the profession.”

He added that the issue goes beyond just hiring educators in Michigan but ensuring that they want to keep teaching in the state.

“We have to do a better job of not just recruiting them, but retaining them, and that means we have to improve the conditions under which teachers teach and, by extension, under which students learn,” Rice said. “I think we need to pay our teachers more. We undercompensate our teachers. We need to improve supports for teachers. This means doing things like reducing class sizes, increasing mental health support, increasing opportunities for teachers to feel efficacious and, by extension, for students to feel and be more productive and successful.”

Providing mental health resources and putting other measures in place to make sure students can readjust to school in a post-COVID world also were high on Rice’s list of pressing topics.

“Getting back into school daily was part of (our recovery from the pandemic),” he said. “It’s not just about getting back into the buildings, though. We need to provide children with what they need and that isn’t just about academics, that also includes ensuring their social and emotional needs are met. Our young people, and our districts’ staffs, have been through a pretty rough two years and we need to provide for them.”

Carrie Wozniak, the superintendent of Fraser Public Schools, weighed in on several of the issues Rice discussed and agreed that they are priorities at the local level.

“Right now, as we come out of the pandemic, we are seeing more need for social and emotional support for our students,” she said. “Right now, that is our top priority: meeting them where they are at, addressing their needs and getting them back into school and making them comfortable doing that.”

Several districts, including Fraser, are putting extra summer programs in place to ensure students have opportunities to catch up on areas they may be lagging behind in due to the pandemic.

“We are doing a lot of summer programming around literacy and math instruction to close the gap that may have been caused by missing classes and not learning as effectively in the last two years. This is especially true at the lower grades. We want to bolster our early literacy learning so we want to give them plenty of opportunities to get some summer learning in.”

Rice and Wozniak both said that virtual learning is at the forefront of families’ minds when thinking about the course of education. Some families enjoyed the flexibility of learning from home, but many more were desperate to get kids back in the classroom. Wozniak said this was especially true in her district.

“We responded very well to the virtual learning issues,” she said. “We were a one-to-one (computer) district before COVID happened, so we were prepared with the technology, but for our families teaching face to face was a priority. I would say that 90% of families wanted to come back and be in person. We still have a small population that preferred a virtual mode, but most families wanted their kids back in school. They know that socialization is an important part of being in public schools. It’s not just about the learning that happens, it’s the connections kids make every day. They were lacking that in lockdown.”

In addition to the educational concerns that districts have to consider when discussing the future of virtual learning are the social and mental health impacts of not learning in a classroom.

“I think the lockdown showed us how important having access to technology is. Having Wi-Fi and having computers to work on were amplified during that time,” Wozniak said. “On the other hand, I think it showed how important a relationship with a teacher can be from not having them for weeks or months at a time. This is especially true at the lower grades. It’s very hard to teach first graders virtually. They need that socialization and that being able to play outside with their friends.”

Rice agreed that while the lessons learned in the last two years about virtual instruction are important, having students inside a classroom learning in person with their peers is a critical component in their educational experience.

“The power is, with the pandemic subsiding, we are very much coming back,” he said. “It’s not just about the children who have been in school the last two years, it’s the children whose parents were uncomfortable having their kids in school. They are coming back and there’s a power to that. There’s a need for some virtual instruction in certain cases, but for so many of our young people it’s been so hard to work from a distance.”

Both educators also agreed that getting students back into the classroom during the last year was a huge accomplishment and that students can fully receive the traditional school experience once again.

“I think we need to have a lot of grace (coming out of COVID) and be very forgiving of the aftereffects of COVID,” Wozniak said. “We know there are a lot of mental health issues that are starting to surface as we move forward. I have a lot of hope. I think spring is a great time for renewal. I am excited for spring and the end of the year. We are back to having our graduation celebrations and end of the year celebrations. All of the celebrations we haven’t had in the last two years are coming back and that is exciting for people, and it is inspiring people to recognize that we are moving forward. Our student council was just celebrating at one of our board meetings for their perseverance, in spite of not knowing what was going to happen and was going to be canceled.”

Rice stressed how this is an important time for education as it seeks to adjust to normalcy in the wake of two years of uncertainty.

“The reality is that it’s been a public health moment for most of the last two years and it has increasingly become a public education moment as the pandemic subsides,” he said.

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