In the year since his son Oran has been inside a classroom, Tim Flood says it’s not reading or math that has suffered, but the things he “actually needs school for” like socialization and physical and behavioral therapy.
A high-functioning autistic student with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, the second-grader is one of the students who “fell through the cracks particularly badly,” Flood says, while Ann Arbor Public Schools has stayed in remote learning since in-person classes were shut down last March due to COVID-19.
“We were handed a laptop and a year’s worth of homework and they just kind of said, ‘Have at it,’” Flood says. “He hasn’t been well-served by that.”
Students, parents, teachers and school districts throughout Michigan have experienced frustrations similar to the Floods in the year since the pandemic sent districts across the state scrambling. But the pandemic also has taught districts how to better meet students’ technological and social-emotional needs where they are.
On March 12, two days after the first COVID-19 cases were reported in Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered K-12 schools closed until April 6. Some thought a return to the classroom could happen then, but reality set in when the shutdown was extended another week before ultimately lasting the rest of the year as the number of COVID-19 cases steadily grew.
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What has unfolded since then is a reimagining of what is expected from schools and an overhaul of how they operate. Michigan school districts continue to work through the nuances of offering more in-person classes now, while balancing plans and hopes to offer more in the fall.
The early stages of the pandemic gave parents a glimpse into what this school year has looked like.
Chaotic mornings of rushing between their child’s Zoom classroom and their own work-from-home duties has been the new normal. Spare rooms have been converted into classrooms. Some parents had to decide between their jobs and taking care of and educating their children.
Without face-to-face interaction with teachers and friends, children have experienced the effects of isolation. Screen fatigue has set in. Activities like sports, musicals, prom and graduation have been called off or done virtually.
“When Oran was going to school, I would hear about how he was doing from teachers, which is a degree of separation,” Flood says. “I think I’ve gained some really valuable first-hand experience about what his needs are and what his limitations are and what he needs to succeed.”
When school buildings shuttered last year, districts found themselves serving their communities in new ways with lunch distribution sites to reach at-risk students, as they dashed to snap up laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots for virtual learning.
Lessons were delivered online and check-ins with students were done via email. Teachers recorded videos of themselves to remind students what they looked and sounded like.
Despite these stopgap measures, Jackson Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Beal says the “patchwork” finish to the year last year was a mistake and more time was needed to teach students and parents how to virtually learn.
“I think, in all honesty, what we did during that time was we taught students how to do virtual wrong,” Beal said.
“We taught our parents how not to do virtual and we put our teachers in an untenable position of trying to provide packets for online work without any accountability or any requirements. I think that set up this false sense of what virtual learning could be or should be.”
Districts learned what school would look like in the fall when Whitmer issued the Michigan Safe Start Plan in June, giving them guidance for remote learning, in-person learning with strict rules and a more flexible plan for face-to-face learning depending on how the virus had spread in their communities.
Administrators balanced the opinions and needs of students, families, parents, teachers, staff and even politicians in making their decisions.
Parents were torn over sticking with the virtual learning many districts initially offered, or to transfer their children to private schools, which were offering more in-person classes. Others took matters into their own hands and established learning pods, leading to questions about equitable access to education during the pandemic.
More laptops and tablets were distributed and districts’ technology departments were forced into leading roles to keep students online. With many parents returning to work, students spent their days working in front of a computer, some struggling academically and others suffering mentally and emotionally.
The Zoom experience is “extremely overstimulating” for his son, who thrives on the routine in-person school provides, Flood says.
“I can’t just open up the laptop and sit Oran down at his desk and expect that he’s going to work and study. I would have to stand over him, pretty much constantly,” Flood says. “As a single parent, I can’t really provide the same degree of structure and routine he would ordinarily see in the classroom.”
The return to school in the fall was anything but normal. Face masks and plexiglass separate teachers from students. Arrows line hallways to keep students adhering to social distancing rules.
As temperatures dropped, COVID-19 cases rose, resulting in quarantines and outbreaks in schools that left many lacking staff, which forced students back into virtual learning again even if they had been face to face.
Concern for children’s wellbeing grew as the year progressed.
“The struggles for students (in virtual learning) center around the fact that they are less engaged than when they are in-person,” Beal said. “Virtual learning has worked wonderful for some of our students. At the same time, we have more students failing, and for many, that’s a reflection of distance learning.”
In 2021, the focus has shifted to getting students back into classrooms. Development of the COVID-19 vaccine and its availability to teachers and school staff has given hope this is possible.
Now, as districts contemplate how to make up for a lost year and reach families who might have left their districts, Beal said communication is critical in helping students recover from the last year.
“We’ve done a lot more social and emotional check-ins with our parents and we start to recognize when students are falling off or not participating,” Beal said. “Will some of that continue into next year? Almost assuredly.”
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