Ensuring schools return to a safe learning environment

The last several months have been difficult for residents across the state as we have dealt with the unique challenges of trying to navigate through the coronavirus pandemic.

Michigan’s teachers, administrators and support staff have stood tall in the face of this health epidemic. They have worked tirelessly to ensure students and parents have the resources they need to continue educating students under these extreme and unprecedented circumstances.

As we look toward the future, it is important that we carefully consider the health and safety of our students and teachers. My colleagues and I have been talking with school administrators and teachers in our communities to understand what schools need to safely reopen.

The “Return to Learn Plan” outlines the top priorities for our schools to allow learning to continue in a safe and healthy environment. The plan includes $1.3 billion in Federal Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF) to help pay for the costs faced by administrators, teachers and students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The plan includes an additional $800 per student so schools will have the resources they need to implement health and safety measures for classrooms and to enhance distance learning efforts. Students, school employees and parents need to have complete confidence that classrooms will be safe when the time comes to return to in-person learning. School districts would receive additional resources to implement smaller class sizes and other adjustments, enhance sanitation procedures, purchase personal protection equipment, and make building enhancements to improve safety.

The supplemental also acknowledges we aren’t quite there yet and includes language to provide continued support for learning at home and ensuring resources are available to promote distance learning in the meantime. My colleagues and I recognize the extraordinary efforts undertaken by students, teachers, parents, and school employees who — in the midst of an unprecedented challenge — collaborated to continue learning.

Resources will be available for all pandemic-related efforts undertaken after the statewide closure of classrooms on March 16. This includes device purchases, upgrades to networks and wireless connectivity, development of digital curriculum, mailing or personal delivery of educational materials, and professional development related to virtual learning.

We also recognize the extraordinary lengths teachers have taken to ensure their students were able to learn after the abrupt and unforeseen closure of school buildings. Our plan provides them with a one-time overtime and hazard payment of $500 to recognize the untold additional hours and tremendous personal cost they incurred while quickly transitioning to distance learning plans and successfully concluding the school year.

This does not end our work, however. Earlier this month, the governor created the COVID-19 Return to Learn Advisory Council, which was tasked with leading the state’s efforts on students returning to school safely. I am honored to have been chosen as one of the legislative representatives on the council. I remain committed to working with other members of the council, my colleagues in the Legislature, and the governor to ensure a smooth-as-possible transition as we seek to return to some level or normalcy.

Our students deserve the best education we are able to provide, and I am proud of the job our educators and support staff have done to minimize the interruption the virus has caused. We must give our teachers and schools the flexibility they need continue teaching our kids under these extreme circumstances and to be prepared to pivot on a moment’s notice in case something like this happens again.

Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, represents the 37th state Senate District, which includes Antrim, Charlevoix, Cheboygan, Chippewa, Emmet, Grand Traverse, Luce and Mackinac counties.