State education officials announced Friday that any online learning done at home during the statewide K-12 shutdown will not be counted as instructional time.

The memo was issued in response to questions Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was getting from superintendents and education officials since she ordered all K-12 schools closed through April 5, an action that sent 1.5 million Michigan school children home.

Phil Freeman, Lakeshore Public Schools superintendent, said when the county’s superintendents met several weeks ago they understood that online learning might not count.

“Even with that, we decided to move forward with the remote learning opportunities to give students a routine and keep them engaged in this time of uncertainty,” he said. “We know we’re losing instructional time already, but we know that at some time we’ll be coming back to school and we’re hoping by offering the opportunities that it’ll be a whole lot easier for the students for acclimate once school comes back.”

The memo – written by Venessa A. Keesler, deputy superintendent at the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), and Kyle Guerrant, deputy superintendent in finance and operations – says “there is no mechanism to earn instructional time during a period of mandated school closure. However, schools can and are encouraged to offer supplemental learning opportunities to students using distance learning methods as they see fit.

“MDE will not be granting seat time waiver requests during this time.”

Coloma Community Schools Superintendent Dave Ehlers sent a letter out to parents Friday saying that the district has never assumed or even thought that remote learning opportunities would count toward instructional time or days.

“The goal in creating remote learning opportunities was and continues to be keeping students in a routine and engaged,” he wrote.

David Eichberg, Berrien Springs Public Schools superintendent, also said this is how he has interpreted the law the entire time.

“That’s why I put down in writing to all of our families that we cannot hold all students accountable for learning during this,” he said Friday. “If the state had made a different announcement, I would think it would be against the law. I know this is frustrating for everyone, but our district has conversations about what counts and what doesn’t daily because our district does more non-traditional learning programs than others already.”

Freeman also sent out a letter to parents Friday about the MDE memo, reiterating that at the time the superintendents made that decision to offer remote learning opportunities, “they had no idea (and to a degree continue to have no idea) how long school would be canceled.”

The state requires 1,098 instruction hours per year for every student. It was not clear what immediate impact the memo would have since it’s not clear when students are returning to school.

Eichberg said forgiveness for school days missed would have to come from legislative action.

“Our local legislators have indicated that they won’t be able to take action until school closures end, to see what they’re dealing with,” he said.

The state’s largest teachers union said on Friday it wants state lawmakers to return to Lansing to forgive the missed school time and continue pay for educators.

“As the memo states, there isn’t a mechanism to earn instructional time during a period of mandated school closure,” said Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association.

“Those requirements are set by the Legislature, which is why we’re working hard to get the state House and Senate to return to Lansing to take action on continued pay for all school employees and forgiveness of time during this closure.”

Districts across Michigan have been scrambling to provide education resources and food to students who are displaced from school.

Many have set up daily instructional time for students while others declared this week to be spring break, and have sent little to no materials home for children to continue their education.

State Board of Education President Cassandra Ulbrich said on Friday the decision was made due to the inequities between districts in their ability to deliver online education.

“It comes down to a fairness issue. Not every district has the ability to offer programming in the same way,” Ulbrich said. “It’s not fair to allow districts with resources to count days and other districts trying to get resources not qualify to count those days.”

Asked if the state could create equity among districts if the shutdown extends past 15 school days, Ulbrich said conversations on that issue are already underway.

“We encourage the Legislature to create equitable funding structures so schools can do those kinds of things. Can they do it in 15 days? No,” Ulbrich said. “We’ve been having these conversations on equitable funding for so long and they haven’t gone anywhere. Maybe this is the impetus we need to create equitable systems in these schools.”

In a news conference Friday afternoon, Whitmer said she was “dismayed” to see the memo from the MDE Friday.

“Our plan and hope is always that we’ll be in a position to get back into school, but we’re very aware of what the science and experiences have been elsewhere,” she said. “We’re going to work to make sure that kids are getting the instruction, or the equivalent of instruction, as needed so that they can finish this year having gotten the education that they’re supposed to get.”

On the other side of the state, Steve Matthews, superintendent of Novi Community Schools, called the announcement by the state education department tone-deaf and disrespectful at the same time.

“We’ve all worked hard to provide instructional opportunities for our kids. Teachers have transitioned to provide virtual opportunities and kids are engaged in meaningful learning,” Matthews said. “Just to come out and say this doesn’t count for anything ... doesn’t respect the work the teacher are doing.”

Matthews said state lawmakers have may decided to forgive the days, as they did in 2019 for snow days, or could require districts to extend the school year. If that happens, Novi schools would need to have school through July 3.

“At some level, we need some direction on what is going to happen,” Matthews said.

Freeman called the Legislature’s decision not to act yet “understandable.”

“The inability to forecast the next steps in this crisis continues to lead to a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety, and I wish I had an answer to all of your questions right now,” he wrote to parents. “This crisis has disrupted the lives of our students, staff, and community, and we are hoping to provide as much normalcy as we possibly can. We will continue to use the best available information to make decisions and drive our future actions.”