No return to normal: Panelists say education needs to better serve students when COVID-19 is over

have to move forward to best serve students after the COVID-19 pandemic is over
Panelists at the Health Forum of West Michigan are (clockwise from top left) Jean Nagelkerk, Elizabeth Hertel, Bill Pink, Philomena V. Mantella, Sheila Alles and Doug VanderJagt.
Image Credit: Amanda Pitts

Panelists at a virtual event who discussed the impact of COVID-19 on education agreed that when pandemic mitigation strategies are lifted a "return to normal" will not be the best-case scenario for many K-12 or college students.

The March 5 Health Forum of West Michigan panelists were President Philomena V. Mantella; Bill Pink, president of Grand Rapids Community College; Sheila A. Alles, chief deputy superintendent for the State of Michigan; and Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Pink said colleges and universities have to move forward to best serve students after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, due, in part, to the country's other pandemic: social and racial inequality.

"What was normal one year ago was not the best situation for many people in our country," Pink said. "These two pandemics have exposed so many inequities. Shame on us if we think we need to get back to where we were before last March."

Mantella agreed and said higher education has an opportunity to learn and grow from its responsiveness of quickly accommodating students when remote learning was mandated last spring. 

"Learners will continue to expect choice and flexibility," Mantella said. "I don't see flexibility going away in the future, nor will mixed modalities of instruction go away."

Mantella also said higher education has to support students for a lifetime of learning, which couples with supporting the needs of industry by increasing the talent pipeline. She highlighted programs Grand Valley has initiated, such as the Veteran Promise, which guarantees admission for enlisted 2021 Michigan high school graduates; and the accelerated degree program, which offers adult learners a fast-track to degree or certificate programs.

Hertel and Alles addressed issues K-12 students have grappled with over the past year. 

Hertel, who earned a bachelor's degree in public administration from Grand Valley in 2000, said mental and physical health issues for students have increased, the number of children who receive immunizations has decreased, and the number of abuse and neglect cases has increased.

Hertel said schools, with proper mitigation strategies, have proven to be a lower-risk environment for students and staff, which led to the decision to ask local districts to offer in-person learning by March 1.

Alles said 83 percent of Michigan's school districts are now back to in-person instruction. She said the plan for next school year is to return to a "new, better normal."

Because learning loss will continue to be a struggle for students, Alles said the Michigan Department of Education will likely recommend lengthening the required number of days of instruction. Currently, public school districts are required to meet for 180 days.

"That number of school days is too low and it isn't even close to the number of instruction days at high-performing nations," Alles said. "We may raise the requirement of days of instruction in the 2021-2022 school year."

The discussion was moderated by Doug VanderJagt, superintendent for Hudsonville Public Schools, who earned a degree from Grand Valley in 1992.

Health Forum of West Michigan events are organized by Grand Valley's Office of the Vice Provost for Health.