Though school buildings remain shuttered to slow the spread of the coronavirus, about 1.5 million K-12 public-school students in Michigan will begin learning in a completely different way than normal over the next two weeks.
With flexibility and grace in mind, districts are rolling out official plans to continue instruction through the end of the school year. Two of the first out of the gates are East Grand Rapids Public Schools, where students officially launched the EGR Continuity of Learning Plan today, and Rockford Public Schools, where they are launching their plan, Rams Connect, on Wednesday.
“We really asked the teachers to look at what are the essential standards left to be completed throughout the rest of the year,” said Jenny Fee, EGR’s assistant superintendent of instruction. “Those are the items to be taught.”
Mike Ramm, Rockord’s assistant superintendent of curriculum, said teachers worked to establish weekly lessons, also based on essential standards, for the final eight weeks of the school year. “We are not trying to replicate face-to-face instruction,” Ramm said. “The plan is a blend of virtual connections and online resources.”
All Michigan districts are expected to roll out their plans no later than April 28, as ordered by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Students will not be penalized, however, if they cannot participate. The plans lay out concrete sets of expectations and schedules, building on the enhancement learning opportunities districts have offered since schools were ordered closed March 16.
Learning Takes Precedence
Plans have common elements, with learning the priority over grades. From their couches, bedrooms or backyards, students will log on to virtual meetings and classes on Google Hangouts, Zoom or other interfaces. Students will access digital lessons and complete assignments with flexible schedules. They will ease into summer and advance to the next grade levels (if they were on track before school closed) without leaving home.
‘I want students to feel connected to Rockford Public Schools. It’s not their fault this is happening.’— Mike Ramm, Rockford assistant superintendent
Educators in all 20 Kent ISD districts have prepared in dizzying fashion, tailoring plans to best fit the needs of their communities. They submitted plans to the Michigan Department of Education, signed by Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Caniff, with most launching this week or next.
“I definitely would not ever want to underestimate the type of effort our teachers have put into become online teachers overnight,” said Kelli Brockway, Kent ISD director of teaching and learning. “They definitely put their full effort into it, like they do every day.”
Educators know it’s a second-best approach to teaching and meeting the needs of all students, but it’s what’s necessary right now. They are stepping up to learn how to navigate online instruction and adding their own innovative elements, Brockway said.
“We see teachers being creative at home, turning parts of their home into little classrooms,” she said. In makeshift spaces, they are teaching virtually and providing a sense of normalcy to students. “We make the best of what we have and try to do what’s best for our kids.”
Guidance Spans Spectrum of Services
Brockway is involved with the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators, a statewide team creating remote learning guidance, which districts have tapped into to complete plans they have submitted to Kent ISD for approval. The Michigan Department of Education has created an official guidance document as well.
District plans must detail how learning will continue and meet criteria under 14 sections, spanning alternative modes of instruction, outreach and relationships, budgets, food distribution, special education and mental health services.
“Our districts have done an amazing job. Their plans are thorough and detailed,” Brockway said.
Most districts, including East Grand Rapids and Rockford, are using a hybrid model, involving access to online and recorded instruction materials for students to use on their own schedule, and synchronized sessions where classes and teachers meet live virtually. “They’ve built in a lot of connections with teachers,” Brockway said.
Ensuring accessibility to all students has been the biggest challenge, she said. Districts have worked hard to get Chromebooks into the hands of students and to get all families connected to the internet. “They’re working tirelessly to exhaust every option to get devices to kids,” Brockway said.
In Grand Rapids Public Schools, where an estimated 25 to 30 percent of students do not have digital technology or internet access, officials are distributing tablets and laptops over the next two weeks for students who need them. Interim Superintendent Ronald Gorman said in a video that distance learning will begin April 27, and asked families to fill out a survey if they lack devices or access. Comcast and AT&T are offering up to two months of free internet and the district can also provide hotspots, he noted.
Districts Reacted Quickly
Fee said East Grand Rapids administrators began working right after EGR schools closed March 13, in anticipation that schools would not reopen and in knowing that the community would seek solid continued instruction. They looked at models in Hawaii, Virginia and Wisconsin, taking into consideration how to approach grading, attendance and special education.
Rockford also got things moving immediately, with teacher leaders and administrators formulating a plan and writing guidelines. “We hopped on it right away,” Ramm said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen and we wanted to be prepared.
“We’ve been prideful that our plan is not just about instruction,” he said, adding that it is also about offering social emotional support and the many other ways schools help students who have different needs and situations. “That has been where it’s been all hands on deck.”
EGR developed its framework with input from central administrators, principals and teachers including what would work and be most effective. Student participation and attendance in virtual classes or office hours is required, to the extent students are able.
‘This is not an effort to replicate a normal school day.’— Jenny Fee, EGR assistant superintendent
Fee said they considered the unique circumstances families are facing, and school leaders have connected with “100 percent” of families to assess their needs. “Flexibility was a really big piece,” she said. The plan offers a blend of online learning for students to access on their own time, and virtual meetings with teachers.
How Plans Will Work
At EGR High School, teachers will continue instruction in both core and elective classes and offer “real-time” connection classes, or virtual office hours will be scheduled by the teacher. For example, students and teachers will meet up for a virtual class or office hours in science, science electives, music, International Baccalaureate film and film studies on Mondays, with teachers posting weekly assignments for those classes two days prior.
High school students are expected to spend three hours a day, or 30 minutes per class, on learning. Middle schoolers are expected to spend 90 to 180 minutes per day on learning and 20 to 30 minutes on independent reading. Kindergarten through second graders are expected to spend 30 to 90 minutes per day on schoolwork, and third through fifth graders 60 to 120 minutes. Families are asked to commit to an at-home learning schedule.
At Rockford, sixth through 12th grade students are expected to complete two to three courses per class per week. Kindergartners through fifth graders will complete two literary, two math, and one art, physical education or music class per week starting out. Teachers will have one hour Monday through Thursday when they are at their computers to respond to and interact with students or support their learning.
Offering Students Grace
“This is not an effort to replicate a normal school day,” Fee said, noting that requiring a full school day of classes would not work for many students, and that officials are offering students grace in terms of when they complete requirements. “To penalize a student is not a practice that feels good.”
Rockford is taking a “credit or credit incomplete” approach to students’ work, Ramm said. “We are going to be giving feedback on quality of work, but it won’t be a grading system,” he said, noting that they will reach out to any student who is not participating to try to determine why and assess what they need.
‘Our districts have done an amazing job. Their plans are thorough and detailed.’— Kelly Brockway, Kent ISD director of teaching and learning
While Rockford has an established one-to-one device program for all students, they are working to help families connect to the internet by helping them sign up for free services. If they still can’t connect, they are offering paper assignment packets.
Ramm said he’s hoping the plan results in continued learning, but it’s about much more than that.
“I want students to feel connected to Rockford Public Schools. It’s not their fault this is happening. I want them to feel connected to teachers and classmates, and I want our students to feel like they are doing everything they can despite having this situation occur. I also want to provide families with some structure. It’s difficult to teach at home and everybody’s home looks different.”
Ramm said educators are trying their best to prepare students for the next level, but that’s not the whole picture. It’s about leveraging relationships, now more than ever, he said.
“How can we extend the influence beyond the textbook? It’s the concept of the school building is a building, but what happens in the building is because of the people.”