Betheny Gross says parents and schools alike were thrown into chaos this spring when districts across the state were forced to close due to the coronavirus pandemic.
She said many parents learned that their districts were not set up for online learning and teachers needed to be trained specifically for that instruction.
“It was pretty messy,” said Gross, associate director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a nonpartisan research center focused on public education.
But she said school districts have spent the summer months preparing for the fall and learning how to deliver a better online learning experience.
As schools prepare to reopen, Gross said parents are likely asking themselves if sending their children back into a school building is worth risking coronavirus or if it’s better keeping them at home.
The ongoing debate around back-to-school learning is often framed as an either-or situation: Either you send your students back to the classroom, or you don’t. But the discussion is more complex than that, as parents weigh health risks with a school’s readiness and capacity to deliver a quality education.
If parents have safety concerns with face-to-face instruction, even if limited in a hybrid situation, they have alternative choices. There is homeschooling and multiple online learning options to explore.
MLive examined those educational options with experts for parents and guardians to review the pros and cons to help them make the best back to school decision for their family.
For those parents thinking about pulling their child out of their school district altogether to be homeschooled, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) does not have many requirements.
In fact, Michigan is one of the most lenient states in the nation in regulating homeschooling.
For example, while encouraged, parents are not required to report their decision to homeschool to their district or the state unless they are requesting special education services, there are no required tests for students, grades do not have to be reported to the state, and no teaching credentials are needed.
Michigan’s homeschooling law technically is only an exemption to the state’s compulsory attendance law – meaning, the law allows parents to be exempt from sending their child to school if they decide to homeschool.
“Other states tend to take a more stringent approach as far as the oversight of the department. That is not the case in Michigan,” said Kevin Walters, MDE Supervisor of the Grants, Contracts and School Support Unit, which oversees homeschooling. “Clearly Michigan is one of the more lenient or relaxed.”
“Our role is to assist parents in registering and then providing resources and support to parents who choose that option to homeschool their child.”
Homeschooling is when a legal parent or guardian is educating their child within their own home. It is not legally considered homeschooling if, for example, a certified teacher decides to school several neighborhood kids in their home, Walters said.
He said homeschooling inquiries have surged as a result of the pandemic. For example, Walters referenced around 75 inquiries from parents over two weeks in July.
There were 168 households in Michigan that registered as a home-schooled household last year – although Walters noted registration is completely voluntary and may not reflect the full numbers.
Gregory Cizek, a professor of Educational Measurement and Evaluation at the University of North Carolina, has spent years researching home education. He said there are pros and cons to homeschooling.
If a parent does decide to do homeschooling, he said “do your homework.” If done well, he said homeschooling can be found to be very effective for students.
Pros of homeschooling
Cizek said homeschooling can be more efficient than in-person learning at school. He also said a parent can easily tailor instruction specifically to their own child, compared to a teacher who is teaching a classroom of students at different levels academically.
“Schools have a lot of routines and a lot of structures in place that just take up extra time that you don’t need,” Cizek told MLive. “When you’re in a one-on-one classroom setting at home, you can deliver instruction much more efficiently, you can do assessment much more efficiently.”
Cizek said homeschooling can be completed in about half the amount of time as in-school education. For example, if a typical school day lasts six or seven hours, home instruction and assessment can be completed in about three or four hours.
“A parent is often in a pretty good position to fairly quickly understand a student’s strengths and weaknesses, because it’s their own child,” Cizek said.
Parents can also be more flexible in structuring at-home learning than schools are able to, he said. It’s much easier for a parent to bring their kid to a new educational exhibit at their local museum than schools can.
But with that flexibility comes more responsibility for parents.
Cons of Homeschooling
Cizek said homeschooling can be a huge burden for parents, especially those who haven’t tried it before.
“Unless you’re willing to really devote the time to planning and delivering instruction, it’s going to be a huge challenge,” he said. “It’s a pretty substantial time burden.”
One of the toughest challenges can be finding suitable homeschooling curriculum. Parents are responsible for purchasing the textbooks, supplies and instructional materials, which can be substantial burden, Cizek said.
The state does not mandate what is taught to a student, only requiring that students learn the following core subjects: math, reading, English, science, and social studies in all grades; the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution of Michigan, and the history of civil government.
“Traditional brick and mortar schools are fairly well equipped with chemistry labs and biology equipment and the ability to do dissections and all kinds of things like that,” Cizek said. “And so, very few homes would have that kind of thing available to them, so if you’re choosing to home educate older students it will be a challenge in terms of materials and equipment.”
Parents should also consider the fact that students are missing out on important opportunities for socialization if they are taken out of the classroom – although, Cizek said, research suggests that concern is “a bit overrated.”
A final tip for parents considering homeschooling is that both parents must be fully on-board with the idea, Cizek said.
“If they’re not unified, it can cause immense tension within the home, and the schooling can be actually counterproductive for the student,” he warned. “You’ve got to be able to say, ‘we’re in it to win it’ on this. It’s not like, ‘we’re going to try it for two or three weeks and see how it goes.’”
“Much of the research on at home education suggests that kids do very well academically, in that setting,” he said.
The Michigan Department of Education encourages parents to maintain detailed student records of progress throughout the year, which can make things easier down the road if a student needs to verify their education for post-secondary work opportunities.
There is no deadline or limitation window to when a parent can decide to homeschool their child. Parents can make that decision at any time, even during the school year.
Uneasy about sending their children back into classrooms and unable or ready to tackle homeschooling, some parents are looking at online learning to replace in-person instruction and exploring all the options.
Superintendents were aware some parents had safety concerns. Districts are creating their own online programs, while others are leaning on their intermediate school district for support.
Many districts have already opted for online-only instruction to start the school year such as Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor or are giving parents the option like Detroit Public Schools Community District.
Parents have the following choices when it comes to an online education:
- Enroll in the neighborhood school district’s online program, which could include more than one choice.
- Transfer to another school district’s program through Schools of Choice, provided the district is still accepting students at your child’s grade level.
- Enroll in an established online charter school such as the statewide K-12 Michigan Virtual Charter Academy.
- Use a private company for online education.
Gross said parents should consider their child’s personality and learning style when looking at online learning options.
“Nobody has a better sense of a kid’s strengths and weaknesses than their parents,” said Gross, who is an expert on systemic strategies to help families to access educational opportunities
Tips for examining online programs
Online learning can work well for independent students, though even students who are not super independent can succeed online when the district stays diligent about checking in on the child’s engagement, Gross said.
She said the biggest advantage of online learning for parents during the coronavirus pandemic is “some degree of certainty about their child’s exposure to the virus.‘’
Gross said safety is a “very motivating factor for parents and understandably so.”
Experts say most students prefer being in the classroom with their teacher and peers.
“Kids love their teachers; kids love their classmates,” Gross said.
There are also behavioral and emotional benefits to being among classmates and non-parent adults.
So, when examining online options, Gross said parents should consider the type of relationship their child will have with the teacher. She said they should inquire about the type of instruction, whether asynchronous or live, real-time virtual communication between student and teacher.
Real-time connection and experiences – virtual – are important to “sustaining and growing kids socially and emotionally, Gross said.
“In the distance learning world, they really do emphasize that even though kids may be in different places and working at different times, it’s really important to build and maintain a learning community,” she said.
Gross said parents should inquire about how their child will interact with both their teacher and classmates through the virtual model. Parents should also ask about the schedule and how much time their child will be expected to be in front of the computer.
“What you don’t want to see is a school trying to replicate what life in a classroom would look like – with a bell schedule and being online for five, six, or seven hours at a stretch,” she said.
“What you want to do is see a sort of healthy balance of time together and then time for independent learning, because that’s going to be more sustainable from a mental standpoint for the kid but also really developmentally powerful to give students the opportunity for this independent work.”
If there is independent work, parents need to ask what sort of support their children will receive from the district and recognize their role as “co-teachers,” Gross said.
“What’s your communication to me about what the learning goals are? How will I know what my child is doing and what their work is supposed to look like?” she advised parents to ask.
School District Online Plans Vary
School districts must adopt their back to school plans by Aug. 15 – in-person, online or a hybrid.
Parents working away from home is a big concern with the online school model and districts can help by offering additional support, Gross said.
For parents in Ann Arbor Public Schools, there are multiple forms of online learning available to students, Superintendent Jeanice Swift told MLive.
Among the options is a more self-paced, flexible model where students do more independent learning with asynchronous instruction. Another option is the model that is more similar to the classroom, where students are learning in real-time with their teacher and classmates.
Making virtual learning successful, including providing non-academic support for needs like mental health and social and emotional learning, requires the work of the entire community, Swift said.
“We see this as a community mobilization endeavor,” Swift said.
In West Michigan, Kalamazoo County-area families can choose to enroll their students in the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency’s program.
The KRESA Virtual & Innovative Collaborative (KVIC) is a virtual learning program operated jointly KRESA and participating local school districts.
The online courses will be taught by “experienced virtual teachers.” The program partners with Gull Lake Community Schools, which has had a virtual program for a decade, KRESA Superintendent Dave Campbell told MLive.
There is a lot of misunderstanding that online learning this fall will resemble the experience that parents, and families had in the spring, Campbell said. Districts pivoted quickly out of necessity in March but this fall, programs have been thoroughly planned and there will be accountability for grades and attendance.
Some parents may favor the district-owned online program because they want their children to remain with the teacher and classmates they know.
In KVIC, one teacher will deliver the content to about 250 students. But children will have a mentor assigned to them who is employed by their local district. Students can also participate in their local district’s sports or extra-curricular programs while enrolled at KVIC.
“You’re keeping the community connection,” Campbell said. “We think it’s really healthy for kids to have those emotional, social connections.”
Online learning works best for “a motivated introvert,” Campbell said. But, connecting with others is possible through a virtual model, he said.
“The 21st century skills: creativity, collaboration, that’s best learned face-to-face but a lot of it can be transferred into a virtual environment,” Campbell said.
Online school can have “engaging visuals” that make the content interesting for students, he said.
Campbell said in-person experiences like learning in a science lab with a lab partner are the best way to teach collaboration and other skills.
“But it’s you’ve got a great teacher facilitating that, it’s interesting, engaging and fun,” he said
K-12 online charters
Parent involvement is critical to the philosophy of Michigan Virtual Charter Academy, Head of School Randy Rodriguez said in an interview with MLive. Amid the pandemic, there is greater interest in the charter.
The charter academy, authorized by Grand Valley State University, is among online charter school options for parents. The school has been providing online education to Michigan students for 10 years.
For those who choose Michigan Virtual, the commitment is greater for parents of younger children, Rodriguez said. Parents should expect to spend three to five hours per day helping an elementary-aged child with their work, he said.
Parents of high school-aged students should expect about one hour per day of parental involvement. At this level, Rodriguez said it is important for students to remain accountable to the work.
“The fact that 100% of all families had an opportunity to try online learning has created some curiosity, some interest,” he said. “Then some are still just working from fear. They’re not sure if they want to be back right now in the brick and mortar, and so they’re looking at online options.
“I think nationally and obviously in the state, the interest for online learning has exploded,” Rodriguez said.
Unlike local districts that pivoted to online learning out of necessity, Michigan Virtual was created around an online learning culture, he said.
“I think the benefit we offer is we have developed our entire school culture and community around online learning,” he said.
“Our teachers are champions for digital education,” Rodriguez said. “This is what they do every day and they’re really good at engaging students and making this experience come alive for students.”
He said there are no disadvantages to online learning, only challenges.
“I don’t know that I would say there’s disadvantages. I think it’s really about choice,” he said.
Michigan Virtual, for example, does not offer athletics or music.
“A lot of times you’ll hear people say that socialization is a disadvantage, but again because we’ve developed our entire culture around the online, your students do get a lot of socialization.
“It’s really about a choice of what families want their socialization to look like,” he said.
Districts to provide more support
In Pontiac Public Schools, parents who chose online learning said social distancing is easiest at home, Superintendent Kelley Williams told MLive.
She said the majority of parents of younger students preferred online because they were concerned about their child wearing a mask all day.
“A younger child may not be able to understand why he or she would have to wear a mask all day, and not take the necessary safety precautions needed to keep themselves safe,” Williams said.
Parents in Michigan and across the country are considering “learning pods,” a homemade system where a small group of families pool their resources to hire a private teacher or tutor, who may be a parent.
“Families have a long tradition of teaming up with other families,” Gross said.
But many families do not have the resources to hire a personal tutor or at-home teacher for these learning pods.
Districts should consider deploying their staff to these learning pods so that they are accessible to every family, Gross said.
Ann Arbor schools will provide this additional support in collaboration with community partners, Swift said. Students in small groups will be welcomed at community centers or apartment complex club houses for help with schoolwork, she said.
A similar system will be deployed in Pontiac, Williams said.
For working parents, Pontiac schools partnered with local organizations that provide churches or recreation centers for students to spend their days at when they aren’t in school, she said.
Another decision was to keep siblings in the same school cohort for in-person learning so that one family has the same school schedule, she said.
“We all know that in-person learning is much better than the online learning because of the comfort level of being able to have that face-to-face engagement with students,’’ Williams said.
“I’m not a big fan of online learning,” Williams said. “It is very difficult for (parents) to navigate through it and it causes frustration. But we have made it as much as possible user-friendly for our parents as well as our staff.”
The district trained teachers specifically in supporting students via the online model as well as using the software.
Williams offered advice to parents choosing the online option.
“Stay in close contact with the teacher,” Williams said. “And be very hands on.”
To help readers navigate this complicated fall, we’re pleased to offer you a simpler way to get all of your education news: Our new Michigan Schools: Education in the COVID Era newsletter delivered right to your inbox. To receive this newsletter, simply click here to sign up.
Also on MLive:
Whitmer, lawmakers reach deal on school reopening plans during coronavirus pandemic
What do Michigan teachers fear most about in-person learning? The students sitting in their classrooms
Elementary students should wear masks in classrooms, state officials urge, stopping short of a mandate
How the first week of school went inside a Michigan elementary school
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