Some students could ‘fall through the cracks’ without in-person learning

Bill Ernzen’s 17-year-old daughter Nicola Ernzen has been frustrated with learning online.

Nicola, who was diagnosed with autism at 5 years old, misses the daily routine of waking up, taking her medicine, eating breakfast, and going to school to see her teachers and friends. Adjusting to learning online has been hard, and the Bloomfield Township teen’s family is worried her educational needs won’t be met.

“In the spring, we thought issues with this transition would be temporary and resolved by the fall,” he said. “But it was clear that, when we started the school year, that there were a great many things that hadn’t been figured out.”

Michigan doesn’t have centralized guidelines for teaching high-needs kids online. Each school district must create its own education plan. And many parents and education experts have concerns that some students could be left behind this school year.

“These students need extra attention. You can’t just throw a blanket over every student in the district and say it’s going to work, because it won’t work with special education, high-needs kids,” Bill Ernzen said.

Nicola’s teacher at Seaholm High School in Birmingham has gone “above and beyond” to keep her focused online, her father said, but the district hasn’t yet specified how it will meet her individualized educational needs. Families with special-needs kids are entitled to Individualized Education Programs, under Michigan law.

Statewide, school districts are still working to determine where students are in their educational progress under extraordinary circumstances, while trying to provide a high-quality learning experience in an untraditional virtual platform.

Educational discrepancies that predate the COVID-19 pandemic are being exasperated by adjustment to remote instruction, and it’s expected to widen the learning gap of high-needs kids, according to Michigan education experts and advocates.

Lack of in-person emotional support, access to technology or high-speed internet are often cited as significant factors.

A recent report from the NWEA, a nonprofit that creates student growth and proficiency assessments, projected that the pandemic is going to have a major impact on students’ learning, especially in math. Researchers projected students would return to school this fall with 70% of the learning gains in reading when compared to a typical school year, and in some grades less than 50% of the learning gains in math.

“Nearly a full year behind what we would normally observe in normal conditions,” researchers Megan Kuhfeld and Beth Tarasawa stated in the report.

Students with special needs require regular reinforcement to stay engaged, educators say. Colleen Allen, CEO of the Autism Alliance of Michigan, said those kids “could fall through the cracks” if districts don’t provide individualized learning plans (IEP). The alliance connects parents of special needs kids with resources.

“If your child’s IEP states they learn best through one particular method over another, and the only the thing their school is offering is the option your child can’t participate in, then the district is essentially breaking the law,” Allen said.

Allen said parents are juggling supporting their kid’s education at home while working jobs “they have to keep because it provides insurance for their child’s therapies.”

“That’s the biggest thing we’re hearing from families,” Allen said. “Most parents were understanding of the quick pivots and issues with distance learning because no one was prepared for what happened in the spring, but the expectation now is that those things have been worked out, and they really haven’t.”

Doug Pratt, public affairs director for the Michigan Education Association, a union that represents more than 120,000 educators, said teachers and parents are still assessing where students are in their education and how the pandemic is impacting their learning.

Pratt said understanding exactly how much of a student’s learning was lost since the pandemic began and providing the necessary resources for recovery will be essential to getting students back on track

Since schools were shut down in March, districts have invested millions into giving students laptops and hotspots, yet experts say a quarter of Michigan kids still don’t have the resources needed to excel in an online platform.

Schools are also critical for meeting some students’ basic emotional needs, and there is no data available to determine kids needs in that area, said Pratt.

“People have had family members die from COVID-19,” Pratt said. “Students have been away from friends and their social structures for a long time. They have feelings that they may not have been able to process.”

School districts design their own tests to assess students learning and will have to administer standardized testing this school year. Testing was waived by the Department of Education in the spring, but reinstated this fall.

Grand Rapids Public Schools planned on administering testing this school year regardless. John Helmholdt, who directs district communications, said educational attainment involves more than just “labeling students with As or Fs.”

“There is so much more complexity behind the assessments and the outcomes than just a flat letter grade,” Helmholdt said. “We believe that this will exacerbate an already inequitable situation between the highest-funded and the lowest-funded districts,” Helmholdt said.

Related: Shaky internet access across Michigan poses problems for online schooling

Mary Grech, who analyzes data for the Education Trust-Midwest, said kids facing barriers in online learning are disproportionately students of color, students of low-income households and students in rural communities.

Grech said research shows online learning isn’t as effective as in-person instruction. This means families are faced with “really difficult choices.”

“They have to weigh health and safety considerations for their families against concerns that their children could fall significantly behind in their learning this year,” Grech said.

Data from the Education Trust-Midwest says 96% of students in Michigan’s wealthiest districts have internet access, compared to 75% of students in the poorest districts, and that 1 in 4 children lacked access in districts with the highest rates of students of color. Grech said it’s is a troubling finding that may exacerbate long-standing learning gaps.

“This really puts vulnerable students at a major disadvantage,” Grech said.

Historically, districts with high-needs students supplemented their learning with after-school programs. A recent report from the National Urban Institute says after-school programing can serve as a way to mitigate students’ learning loss this year.

Mary Sutton, who directs the Michigan After-School Partnership, said after-school programming partners are providing online activities to support families during the pandemic. These programs teach kids how to work together on STEM-focused, hands-on activities.

“Education was an underfunded field before COVID-19 but I think it’s really raised the visibility of how important it is for to support working families,” Sutton said.

More Michigan schools coverage here.

Related:

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

How low-income families are getting help with online learning from this community center

Grand Rapids parents get 1 week to decide on in-person learning with no proposed plan

The daunting struggle of single working parents whose children are learning online at home

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