By DANIELLE JAMES
Capital News Service
LANSING — Since March 13, the day schools across the state shut down, Assistant Superintendent Michelle Blaszczynski has been working on a district plan.
Blaszczynski, the assistant superintendent of Greenville Public Schools in Montcalm County, said the district’s new plan adds onto the curriculum that teachers were already providing informally by combining online assignments and video chatting.
“We were fortunate to have some language in our contract from last year that says on any closure days, all teachers will make learning opportunities available to students,” Blaszczynski said. “We were done with school on that Friday afternoon in March, and by Monday we were able to have material available to students online.”
Teachers conduct weekly meetings with students on Zoom, a video chat app, as well as providing virtual office hours.
However, this type of online learning creates yet another challenge for schools and students when not everyone has access to the internet, education experts say.
According to a study by the Kids Count in Michigan Project, only 87.7% of children across the state live in homes with broadband internet access.
The 12.3% who don’t have internet equates to around 266,000 children, according to 2018 Census Bureau data put together by the project.
According to Kelsey Perdue, the director of Kids Count, it’s important for districts to understand the needs of their students when creating remote learning plans.
“Schools have been charged with coming up with these learning plans, and the orders say that they have to provide remote learning materials, not necessarily all online,” Perdue said. “We wanted to make sure that school districts had information to consider when they were making these plans, and for them to know if they choose online learning that there won’t be a 100% ability to participate.”
According to Blaszczynski, participation may be possible for students across her district despite the county having only a 78.2% internet access rate.
“Our secondary students all have their own Chromebook computer, but our elementary students do not,” Blaszczynski said. “We had the elementary school computers on carts in the classrooms instead of going home with students, but we distributed those with a curbside delivery, and any student that needed one received one.
“We have also distributed hundreds of hotspot devices, called jetpacks, that were dropped off by bus drivers so students were able to connect to the internet,” she said.
Hotspot devices allow remote connection to the internet via WiFi.
According to Blaszczynski, the goal is to use technology not only to teach, but to maintain relationships with students and help them adjust to new coursework.
“We value relationships first, so we’re using technology to make sure we stay connected with students and that they connect with each other,” Blaszczynski said, “and then we engage with as much learning as possible.
“We know this is different for students, so we’re not covering as much content,” Blaszczynski said, “but we’re still moving ahead with new material.”
Blaszcznski said teachers are using video chats for more than just classwork. “We’ve had kindergarten teachers holding show-and-tell over Zoom.
We miss our kids dearly, and our teachers are trying to do as much as possible to keep in touch.”
“At this point it’s really just sorting out what everybody needs,” she said.
Not every district has the ability to use technology with students, but Perdue said there are alternatives for schools that can’t get district-wide access to the internet.
“I’ve heard of packets being sent home in some cases, and other schools are setting up specific hotspots across the county that parents can drive to,” Perdue said. “That’s obviously not ideal, but in times like these we have to be willing to be creative because no solution is going to be perfect for everyone.”
Big Rapids is one district that has had to try different styles of remote learning, according to middle school principal Joshua Bull.
“We’re going to try a hybrid approach,” Bull said. “So far, everything we’ve done has been virtual, but we’re going to have packets available to be picked up or mailed out for students without access to the internet.
“We’re trying our best to make the online learning look as close as we can to the paper-and-pencil learning,” he said.
According to Bull, between 55% and 60% of the 635 middle schoolers have been logging on so far to complete optional skills work.
Big Rapids is in Mecosta County, across which 19.4% of students lack home internet access.
“Every student is reached out to by a middle school staff member once a week to check in, and teachers will also start holding zoom calls electronically to explain things,” Bull said. “But it’s been a challenge communicating with some students, especially in our more rural areas.”
Some limits to engagement are normal for teachers across the state, according to David Crim, a communications consultant for the Michigan Education Association headquartered in East Lansing. It’s the state’s largest union of teachers and other school personnel.
“We’re trying to coddle together an education plan to get us through the year, but we need everyone to understand that it’s not ideal,” Crim said, “If we’re able to get a few hours a day from an elementary student, that’s doing pretty well, because kids aren’t going to sit in front of a computer for hours at a time.“This is no replacement for face to face learning, which is proven to be the most effective way to teach students,” Crim said. “But everyone is doing their best.”
According to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan is slated to receive an $89.4 million federal grant to help struggling schools across the state.
Perdue said that money could help students with limited access to technology and the internet.
“Some of those funds can be used to purchase educational tech to help with online learning,” she said.