(WXYZ) — Michigan schools and teachers are at a breaking point. It all adds up: 2 years of COVID, holding virtual classes then moving back to in-person classes with COVID dangers, mask mandates here, but not there, and then to top it all, the deadly Oxford High School shooting and copycat threats forcing hundreds of other schools to shutdown.
Teachers are on the front lines of all the stress and on the brink.
It was a teacher who reported to the office that 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley was searching for ammunition on his cell phone the day before the Oxford shooting. It was a teacher who reported to the office a couple of hours before the shooting that Ethan drew a disturbing picture that included a gun, a student shot twice, a bullet and the words: "the thoughts won’t stop," "blood everywhere," "please help me," "my life is useless," and "the world is dead."
The suspected shooter reportedly used a handgun bought by his parents a few days earlier to kill four students and injure six others — a teacher was also injured with a graze wound to the shoulder.
"There’s not a person that you work with ... I don't think that has had to sequester themselves and 50 young people and stay in a room for 3, 5, 6 hours ensuring other people's children's safety," said Paula Herbart, MEA president.
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The president of the Michigan Education Association points to a picture of a teacher on Twitter and other social media lugging around their life today, it highlights low pay, school budget cuts, working with COVID, guns in schools, politics and shouldering the blame.
"They're sacrificing quite literally their own health and safety for these students in these classrooms. And we need to instead of blaming them, listen to what they're telling us listen to the voices of educators, respect the work that they've done, the expertise that they bring into that classroom." said Herbart.
This is pushing many teachers to the brink of retiring early, or changing professions, or moving to a district that pays more. Some districts are offering hero pay, or extra pay with the federal COVID funds.
"We have educators in this state starting this year who are only making $10,000 more than I did 30 years ago," she said. "That is a crime."
Some school districts are doing wellness programs for teachers facing burnout, but some of those are being criticized as toxic positivity.
"This is an exhaustion that has happened over time. And that is not corrected by a half day off on a Friday," said Herbart. "We have to change systems in order to ensure that these people in public education, feel real relief and feel real support."
Desperate times bring desperate measures. Substitute teachers could soon be school bus drivers, cafeteria workers, office and other school staff. It’s a plan working through the legislature, sponsored by a state rep who was a teacher.
"I'm figuring out how to find I guess a balance and ... folks that are already in the building it seemed like that was more amenable and more acceptable so we landed on employees, people that are already employed through the district," said State Rep. Brad Paquette, R-Niles, in a Senate committee hearing on his bill last week.
His proposal would lift the requirements of 60 hours of college credits and certification for substitute teachers. It would include a background check.
It has passed the House. On Monday, the Senate committee on party line votes. Republicans control the legislature.
"I think the most valuable part of learning is not necessarily having an authority figure in the classroom who knows it all. It's someone who comes alongside the kid and is able to ask a question alongside them and learn with them," said Rep. Paquette.
"We need bus drivers. We need para educators ... we need every school employee!" said Herbart. "It's going to take real thinking and real work on behalf of the legislature to rectify the damage that they've done to create the teacher shortage to begin with."
If this passes, it would be only for the rest of this school year. It is not clear if this would be supported or vetoed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer. All other education reforms and ideas are evolving.