Sally Purchase describes teaching in 2020 as taking an “old bag of tricks,” and trying to adapt them to a completely new environment.
“Never in my 33 years of teaching did I ever think it would be like this,” the Muskegon High School teacher said of virtual learning, which the district is using this semester to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
“It’s a huge learning curve.”
With Michigan K-12 schools back in session for the fall – some virtually, some in-person, and some a mix of both – students aren’t the only ones doing the learning this year. Amid this unprecedented school year, teachers are learning some new things along the way, too.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed almost every aspect of society within the past six months, and education is no exception.
Lifelong educators say they have had to completely rethink the way they teach and interact with their students because of COVID-19 safety precautions.
“These are pretty darn unique times, but people are really coming together and working through it,” said Kevin Oxley, superintendent of the Jackson County Intermediate School District.
“It takes a lot of resiliency and working together, and so far, we seem to have been able to keep people safe and keep the process of education moving forward.”
Educators around the state shared the biggest pandemic challenges they’ve tackled so far this school year.
Here are five key lessons teachers and superintendents said they have learned about teaching and learning during the coronavirus crisis that should help them better serve students and their parents.
1. Keeping students engaged online is a challenge
Purchase, who has taught art at Muskegon High for 33 years, said she sometimes feels like she’s recording a podcast with each virtual class.
“I will start the class with, ‘Welcome back everyone,’ and I get no response, because many students feel self-conscious. I feel like a podcaster.”
Getting students to respond during online class is difficult, Purchase said. Students are hidden behind their computer screens, often muted or unresponsive during class.
That’s why teachers have sought new ways to connect with their students and make sure they stay engaged during class.
“It’s really at the top of our brains to connect with each kid in some kind of way, whether it’s face-to-face, email or phone, or you’re having a private Zoom with them,” Purchase said.
She said many teachers have found websites with educational games and activities, which students can play and then submit their feedback to their teachers. She said this allows educators to see how much knowledge they’ve retained without making them feel like they’re on the spot.
Krissandra Gatz, who teaches fifth and sixth grade at Flint Community Schools, kept her students engaged by creating a Bitmoji Classroom – a customizable virtual classroom that teachers can decorate to look like their own classroom, with a cartoon avatar that looks like the teachers themselves.
Gatz, who teaches English language arts, fills her virtual Bitmoji classroom with fun links to library websites, online audio books and vocabulary activities, as well as a Bitmoji of her dog.
The creation has allowed Gatz to keep her students entertained with a technology that’s relatable to them, while they also have access to educational materials.
“The first time I introduced the kids to the Bitmoji classroom, they picked up on little things like the rug or posters I have in my real classroom, or they notice one of my dogs laying on the rug, and so it’s just little fun things like that to catch their interest and keep their attention,” she said.
“It’s just something fun for the kids to look at while I’m instructing them.”
2. Teacher-student connections are still possible in virtual learning
There’s nothing more important to a teacher than building a personal connection with their students, Gatz said.
“I mean, I can be the best teacher in the whole wide world,” she said. “But if they don’t have that bond with me, if I don’t have that rapport with my students, I cannot teach them reading or writing or anything. They’re not going to learn.”
Some educators worried going into the new school year that teachers would lose that personal rapport with their students when they’re stuck behind a computer screen.
But despite virtual learning impeding face-to-face conversation, some teachers have felt more connected than ever to their students with so many platforms for connectivity at their fingertips.
“We are in contact with our kids on a daily basis,” Gatz said. “We are talking to them on the phone, walking them through their Google Classroom assignment, texting pictures of our dogs, emailing.”
Many students attend virtual classes from rooms around their house like their bedroom or kitchen, giving teachers a unique look into their students’ lives.
“I’ve seen all their bedrooms, which is weird,” Purchase said. “One girl came on Zoom the other day and my first immediate thought was, ‘There’s that bed from second hour, I recognize that headboard!’ So, in some ways, I’m actually getting more personal with kids over Zoom.”
Teachers are also able to give students more one-on-one attention online. For example, if Purchase sees a student struggling with a lesson in class, she can easily schedule a private Zoom meeting with them to talk through their challenges.
“Sometimes it only takes 10 minutes until the kid gets it and you’re good, sometimes it might take a whole hour, but the student is getting a lot more one-on-one time with the teacher than they probably would if they were in the classroom, actually,” Purchase said.
Gatz said she has noticed Flint teachers have been even closer to their students’ parents than ever before this year.
She fields phone calls at all hours of the day from parents who are helping their children with homework and have questions about the assignment, which she’s rarely had before.
“I had a parent call me last night, it was like 8:30 or 9 p.m., and she was like, ‘I’m so sorry to call you this late but I just got home from work and I got a question about this assignment,’ and I was like, ‘No problem!’” she said.
“With all of the headaches and the craziness of COVID and online learning, this has been the best year for parent contacts. I feel like I know my parents better this year than ever.”
3. Virtual learning has exposed the depth of Michigan’s digital divide
Systemic gaps in technology access among school districts around the state left thousands of students at a disadvantage this year, despite efforts by educators to fulfill short-term connectivity needs during virtual learning.
That was made clear at Flint Community Schools when the district was down 2,000 students on the first day of school, largely due to children who had not yet been able to fully connect with their teachers and remote classrooms.
When Flint educators went door-to-door to find students who were unable to connect online, they found many families simply did not have access to the devices needed for their child’s remote education.
“It’s not that some of our families don’t know they’re in school, they just don’t know how to deal with the pandemic,” Assistant Superintendent Kevelin Jones previously said.
RELATED: Flint schools’ families can still get free internet access, technology for students
Gatz said the first few weeks of online learning were “rough” at times because of connectivity issues during her classes.
“The first couple of weeks, I would be in tears, you know, at the end of the day, saying ‘I feel like the worst teacher ever’ and just two steps ahead of my kids and barely that,” she said.
But despite those initial challenges, Gatz said things have become easier week by week. Her students have grown more comfortable in online classes, and things are now running smoothly, she said.
“It’s easy for them to get onto Zoom now, they can go onto Google Classroom and go into the lesson right along with us,” she said. “I’m surprised at how smooth it’s running now.”
Purchase said navigating the “digital divide” has been dependent upon school leaders providing students with as much support as possible.
Muskegon district leaders have been “at the ready” to assist students who have had issues with their school-issued Chromebooks, Purchase said, which has helped her classroom run smoothly.
“I had a girl who this past week was having tons of Chromebook issues,” she said. “She needed a new one, but her mother wouldn’t let her leave the house.”
“Before the end of the day, the school found her address and brought her a new Chromebook, and the very next day she was back in the Zoom meeting and caught up.”
Schools have come a long way since the spring, when districts across the state abruptly switched to remote learning because of COVID-19, said Kent Intermediate School District Superintendent Ron Caniff.
“Equity is certainly one of the challenges (of COVID-19),” he told MLive. “As we know, this pandemic has impacted different groups and populations differently, and that’s true with learning resources, particularly those who’ve elected virtual delivery, making sure that internet access is there, and devices are in the home.”
With months to prepare, schools have been able to prepare for providing students with technology for virtual learning, from distributing internet hotspots to setting up public Wi-Fi points at school buildings.
“(Coronavirus) has compelled educators to improve their technology skills for remote delivery, with new software, new platforms, performing assessments online, evening taking attendance is different than what it once was,” Caniff said.
4. When there’s a positive case in a school, who should be notified?
Many school leaders across the state who decided to reopen their districts for in-person learning this fall have said the same thing: It’s inevitable that positive COVID-19 cases will be found among their students and staff.
When Holland Public Schools reported its first two cases of the novel respiratory virus, Superintendent Brain Davis told MLive positive cases within the district were “not a matter of if, but when.”
Districts have done what they can to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including rules on mandatory face masks and enforced social distancing in the school buildings.
But when there is a positive case found in a school building, who within the district is notified about it?
School districts across Michigan have reported their coronavirus cases with varying levels of transparency. While districts report all positive cases to their respective health departments, not all schools report coronavirus cases to families in the entire district.
Holland schools, for example, notified all district families of two positive cases involving a middle and high school student on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, respectively, through the district’s website.
In an effort to be transparent, Davis announced the district would provide weekly COVID-19 updates through a dashboard showing all positive cases.
When Muskegon Public Schools found its first two students who tested positive for COVID-19, Superintendent Matthew Cortez notified all district families about the cases through a letter, which was posted to Facebook.
Other schools in West Michigan, like Forest Hills Public Schools in Grand Rapids, only reported initial positive cases to families within the school where positive cases were found, not districtwide. The district has reported several positive cases thus far – including one at Northern High School and one at Central High School.
Forest Hills has since created a public data dashboard on its website, which lists the number of active positive cases within the district. The dashboard, which launched Sept. 28, lists three positive cases in students and one case in a staff member.
Transparency reporting has evolved since the start of the school year, and school leaders have had to learn how to report coronavirus cases on the go, Caniff said.
While districts report all positive cases to their respective health departments, not all districts reported coronavirus cases to families in the entire district. Since the start of the school year, many districts have begun to report positive cases on their websites with growing transparency.
Kent ISD recently created its own data dashboard that schools within the district can use to report their positive COVID-19 cases online, Caniff said.
“Hopefully that provides real-time data for parents and staff, and frankly anyone in the public can take a look at the same data that we’re seeing as educational leaders,” he said.
5. Educators aren’t health professionals – and shouldn’t have to be.
Collaboration between schools and local health departments has been paramount to safely reopening schools for in-person learning this year, educators say.
Michigan K-12 schools receive guidance from their county health department on what they need to do before reopening. For example, schools in Kent County must screen students and staff for COVID-19 symptoms every day before they can enter school buildings.
But what kind of symptoms should school leaders be on the lookout for, and how can they differentiate between signs of the coronavirus versus a common cold?
“We’re moving into cold and flu season, and we needed help distinguishing between a normal September scratchy throat and COVID-19,” Oxley said.
That’s what led Oxley to recently set up a system with Jackson County health officials, which will give school leaders direct access to the health department for any screening questions.
The collaboration with Henry Ford Allegiance Health will give educators an immediate contact with a health official if a school’s COVID-19 screener runs into a question or issue they’re not sure about.
“The principals and screeners can make phone calls to help us distinguish whether this student should just quarantine or should this student get tested for COVID, because maybe it’s a little bit more severe than a cold,” he said.
“That way we’re not putting educators in the position of having to do that diagnosis, because that’s not what we do.”
Although the system isn’t fully set up yet, Oxley said the health department has been “all hands on deck” in working to help local schools with coronavirus-related issues.
“Safety is paramount to us,” he said. “We want to keep everybody safe and healthy, but we know we’re not medical professionals. So, we’re looking at how we can partner with our medical professionals to help us sort through that.”
To help you 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.
More on MLive:
Coronavirus outbreaks reported at 29 Michigan K-12 school and 20 colleges; dozens of staff sickened
Michigan K-12 schools show low coronavirus numbers so far, but that’s not the whole story
Betsy DeVos calls online-only schools a ‘tragedy’ for kids, urges in-person learning
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