Ford School students help local townships navigate and adapt during pandemic

September 29, 2020

Four teams of undergraduate and graduate Ford School students embarked on research and engagement projects this past summer to help the Michigan Township Association (MTA) better understand the state of affairs for local townships and the challenges they are facing during the pandemic.

Those projects were some of the activities of the COVID-19 Consulting Corps, led by the Youth Policy Lab and supported by several Ford School and U-M research centers —including CLOSUP, Poverty Solutions, and P3E— to deploy collective expertise and student talent in support of local governments and nonprofits as they respond to the COVID-19 crisis. 

“Michigan’s townships greatly benefited from the excellent research, analysis and clear guidance the Ford School students generated,” said Neil Sheridan, Executive Director of MTA.  “On behalf of our Michigan township residents and their officials, we deeply appreciate the foresight and intensive effort of the Ford School’s students and faculty on these crucial topics.”

Working closely with the MTA, student teams conducted interviews and analyzed data collected through CLOSUP’s Michigan Public Policy Survey to develop a series of policy briefs covering how to comply with the Open Meetings Act under social distancing mandates, preparing for safe and efficient elections, first responder service delivery, and supporting local businesses. The reports generated by students have been shared by MTA in feature length articles, newsletter briefs, blog posts, and in expert briefings to policy makers.

Two MPP students, Alex Serwer (MPP ’20) and Lindsey Dowswell (MPP/MURP ’21)  produced a technical reference guide that provides the steps townships should take for hosting meetings in compliance with the Open Meetings Act. This includes advice on how to prepare and facilitate meetings, maintain security, and navigate community participation. In addition, the students provided a strategy memo to MTA based on local official’s preferences and needs that weighs the risks of holding in-person meetings with the challenges that many townships face with virtual meetings.

Based on interviews with local and state officials in Michigan and lessons learned from other states, three MPP students Emily Fletcher (MPP/MBA ‘20), Lingling Peng (MPP ‘20), and Nora Sullivan (MPP ‘21), summarized promising practices and made recommendations to ensure safe and efficient elections during COVID-19. The report also outlines challenges election clerks face, including a lack of funding to make necessary changes. 

Students Tory Lowry (MPP/MPH ‘21) and Monika Anderson (MPP/MSW ‘21) conducted research to understand the pandemic’s impact on first responders. They conducted a survey and interviews with Michigan fire chiefs to understand their needs on service delivery, health and safety needs, recruitment, and retention. Students identified potential strategies to aid recruitment efforts, including federal grants to create incentive programs.

Emily Fletcher (MPP/MBA ‘20) and undergraduate Michael Blakeslee learned through interviews with local economic developers and township managers that while most businesses have remained solvent, many fear what will happen with reduced customer traffic over time and the end of rent/utility extension programs. They developed recommendations on how townships can support local businesses in reopening and remaining solvent. 

Fletcher said, "Time and again, I was amazed by the adaptability demonstrated by those I spoke with for my research. At every level of government and in communities across the state, people are figuring out how to make the most of tough situations. [This experience] provided a window into COVID-19 recovery considerations across a variety of levels of government."

Michael Selden, director of member information services at MTA, led the project with the students. He said, “It was a real pleasure to work with the Ford School Students on these projects and I was extremely impressed by their hard-work, and dedication and commitment to the topics they each had.”

The CCC is poised to provide virtual and responsive support to community partners to help them connect to resources, research, experts, and much more. Additional CCC projects can be viewed here. 


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