The Ford School of Public Policy held a virtual event on Tuesday highlighting how COVID-19 has affected the state of education in Michigan. The event, hosted in conjunction with the Education Policy Initiative and co-sponsored by Bridge Michigan and University Research Corridor, was part of the Policy Talks @ the Ford School which featured discussions on a variety of subjects relating to local, national and global politics. 

Professor of public policy Kevin Stange is also one of the co-directors at the Education Policy Initiative, which is the research and policy center focused on education policy at the Ford School. He said the event’s goal was to bring people together and share the center’s research on the challenges facing education policymakers in Michigan following the pandemic.

“There’s been a lot of anecdotes of things that could have happened during COVID or some challenges that might emerge,” Stange said. “I think now we have a better picture of what actually is happening on the ground, and I think that can inform policy at many levels. The one goal is to move some of the discussion and have a recognition of some of the challenges that we continue to face and will face in the next couple of years that are rooted in evidence.”

Stange also said he hoped the event’s audience would be a wide range of people passionate about the education system. He noted the importance of sharing the variety of findings with groups who do not regularly interact with academic research.

“We think broadly, policymakers in the state, whether it be at the state level or at the district level, but also parents and teachers and just informed community members,” Stange said. “Our goal is for this to be … centered around people that are interested in education policy or the challenges that our education system is facing.”

During the event, Stange spoke about public school enrollment throughout the pandemic. He highlighted the large drop in student enrollment, specifically in kindergarten, as well as the racial disparities in enrollment rates. Most of the students who left public school, he noted, switched to homeschooling or private schools.

Nicole Wagner Lam, associate director of the Education Policy Initiative, was the coordinator of the event. Her responsibilities included bringing the speakers together and making sure the event is relevant to both the University of Michigan community as well as the greater state-wide community. 

“My role is to coordinate across all the different people who are presenting,” Wagner Lam said. “Also to make sure that attendees really kind of get a full picture of what’s happening in education in Michigan as a result of the pandemic.” 

Wagner Lam said she was inspired to take part in the event because of the ways the pandemic has impacted her own son’s education, and she said she is curious to understand how it has affected education on a larger scale.

“I just can’t even believe how much the pandemic has affected all of our lives and it really hasn’t stopped,” Wagner Lam said. “I guess the real question for me is how is education impacting young people who are currently in school? … But also, how will it affect education for years to come?” 

Public Policy and Public Health graduate student Abigail Kowalczyk attended the event to learn about the effects of the pandemic through an education perspective in contrast to the epidemiology perspectives she studies.

“I’ve seen the pandemic through the public health perspective and I’ve focused heavily on that, but have not really paid much attention to what’s going on in schools especially in the state of Michigan,” Kowalczyk said. “I really wanted to take a step back from all the symptoms, human body stuff, and really focus on and look at it from a different perspective of education.” 

Kowalczyk noted that her main takeaway from the event was a lesson on the systemic inequalities in the education system as well as how the pandemic exacerbated those inequalities.

“It’s interesting to see things like enrollment, student progress and attendance and how these factors have gotten worse for some students during this time,” Kowalczyk said. “As well as who it has gotten worse for who it hasn’t.”

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