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Hey, Michigan teachers: Your $500 check is in the mail

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks during her State of the State address Wednesday, Jan. 27.
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Checks are on the way for teachers. A state panel will address learning loss, and there will be a renewed push to provide more state funding for the most vulnerable students.

These key education issues arose Wednesday in Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

She spoke hours after Michigan House Republicans issued a plan for spending federal coronavirus relief funding. Lawmakers said they would not release $2.1 billion in funding for schools until a law is enacted that strips the power to close schools and restrict sports during a public health emergency from Whitmer, who is a Democrat, and her administration.

Whitmer didn’t specifically address the Republican plan but did call on lawmakers to work with her to “fix the damn road ahead,” a play on the “fix the damn roads” catchphrase she used during her campaign for office and in the first two years of her administration to draw attention to Michigan’s terrible road conditions.

“Let’s commit to the strong bipartisan action we took last year and focus that same energy to end the pandemic, grow our economy, and get our kids back on track.”

Here are a few takeaways from Whitmer’s address:

Teachers will receive hazard pay

Some teachers and school support staff will begin receiving $500 checks, often called hazard pay, next month. The payments are part of a bipartisan deal between Whitmer and the Republicans who control the Legislature.

Public and private school employees who primarily worked in a bricks-and-mortar classroom before April 2 and then transitioned to providing learning and services to students when school buildings closed in March will get the cash.

Support staff including paraprofessionals, food service workers, custodians, bus drivers, school counselors, and literacy coaches will also get checks.

Whitmer said the money will help school employees offset some of the expenses they’ve incurred and “acknowledge their extraordinary efforts.”

“I want to say thank you,” she said.

The money will be a drop in the bucket for many teachers, many of whom typically dip heavily into their personal finances to purchase supplies. Some teachers said their expenses rose during the pandemic because they had to purchase materials in order to teach virtually.

Addressing learning loss is a priority

Whitmer said she will reconvene the Return to School Advisory Council, a group of Michigan residents that was formed last year to advise her on school reopenings. This time, though, they’ll take on an even tougher subject: How to address the academic challenges caused by the pandemic. Some experts have predicted significant learning losses, and there are examples statewide of more students earning Fs.

“Like everything else, COVID has disrupted our kids’ education. I see it in my own kids’ experience,” Whitmer said. “There are students in Michigan who have not been in a classroom since March 13th of last year. The pandemic stole more than 10 months of in-person instruction and support.”

Whitmer said the advisory council must provide guidance to policymakers, districts, and schools about “how best to promote comprehensive recovery.”

“My budget will fund academic recovery, school infrastructure improvements, and support for students’ physical and mental health.”

Boosting funding for the most vulnerable

Whitmer said the budget proposal she’ll submit next month to the Legislature will build upon efforts to create a weighted funding formula for schools that would provide additional money for students who are more costly to educate.

That includes students from low-income homes, students with special education needs, and students who are still learning English.

“COVID exposed deep inequities in our education system,” Whitmer said. “Many students and educators in rural or low-income communities lack the technology access fundamental for remote learning.”

You can read Whitmer’s full speech here.

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