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So far, so good for districts implementing distance learning

All Michigan districts required to be up and running today

In her first week of teaching her fourth graders remotely, Valley View Elementary teacher Jennifer Patzer showed them an online video of the book “The Lucky Star,” a historical story set in the Great Depression. Through an online portal, Patzer walked her students through a virtual lesson on the book. 

“I want you to think a minute about historical fiction,” she narrated. “Historical fiction books, remember, are books that have real settings, the time and place is the real event in history, and the characters are the fiction or the made-up part.” 

But as she read through the book, she paused on a page explaining schools had to close because the town couldn’t afford to pay teachers – not such a far-off time after all. “I’m starting to think maybe it might be a little more of not giving up when things are getting tough, and still kind of working through things,” Patzer said.

So it goes in the new world of distance learning, which all districts in Michigan were to have begun implementing as of today, April 28. 

Under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s April 2 executive order closing schools, districts were required to develop Continuity of Learning Plans making instruction available to all students. The order requires districts statewide to develop their own models to be approved by intermediate districts or authorizing bodies. 

‘We are off to a pretty good start. Our engagement level has been very high.’

– Jenny Fee, East Grand Rapids assistant superintendent

For Kent ISD districts that already began implementing their plans in the past two weeks, officials say student participation has been high – although there are plenty of bugs still to work out. 

While following state requirements, districts’ plans will look a little different based on their students’ access to technology and the internet. Even districts where all students are issued digital devices are making accommodations for families with poor internet connections. Other districts are distributing devices, hotspots and paper-and-pencil materials as needed for students without online access. 

Here are progress reports from a few districts so far: 

East Grand Rapids Public Schools  

EGR rolled out its Continuity of Learning Plan April 14, offering a blend of virtual meeting opportunities and online assignments to complete the school year.

Two weeks in, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Jenny Fee said the vast majority of students are logging in, meeting up virtually and getting things done.  

“We are off to a pretty good start,” Fee said. “Our engagement level has been very high.” So far, student participation is well over 90 percent, she said.

“At our three elementary schools, less than 20 kids (total) didn’t engage, and at the middle school less than 60,” she said. (Participation is still being measured at the high school, but is also very high.) “That was higher than I expected.” 

Particularly at the secondary level, where students are more self-managed, Fee said she is watching for any dips in engagement as things move forward.

For any student not participating, the district makes multiple attempts — by teachers, social workers and counselors — to reach out to get them connected, with good results, she said.

Fee said the biggest challenge with implementation has been adjustment, and expectations on the parent end. The learning plan is not meant to replicate a normal school schedule, and educators realize daily live Zoom sessions with every teacher are not feasible.

Teachers are also adjusting and calibrating assignments to fit time expectations after receiving feedback about work taking too little or too much time.

As they move forward, the district will assess how things are going, Fee said. Students and staff members will complete surveys to reflect. “We will make tweaks and adjustments based on feedback.”

Fee said she sees more than learning taking place, but also a strong focus on relationships. Teachers have told her they were caught off guard by how emotional they felt reconnecting with students, and parents have told her how excited their children were. 

“That speaks to the importance of the relationships students and parents have with their teachers.”

‘While this has been a challenging time, our parents, students and staff have been patient, supportive and positive.’

– Brad Wood, Sparta Middle School principal
Sparta Superintendent Pete Bush says student participation in distance learning has been ‘higher than we thought it might be’

Sparta Area Schools   

A week into the district’s Continuity of Learning Plan, Superintendent Pete Bush was encouraged by the participation. “Overall we are seeing excellent engagement in our first week, actually higher than we thought it might be,” Bush said Monday. “I just met with the principals and overall they feel really good about how it’s going.

 “We will continue to assess and evaluate how things are going and make any necessary changes as we move forward,” he added.

At Sparta Middle School, the plan rollout “has been a total team effort,” said Principal Brad Wood. Many teachers switched to an online learning system called Edgenuity to provide consistency for students in math, science and social studies, he said.

Teachers also are scheduling virtual meetings and office hours for instructional support, and every Friday students get together for an informal online hangout with their classmates and seminar teacher, Wood said.    

“While this has been a challenging time, our parents, students and staff have been patient, supportive and positive,” he added. Also, the school’s counselor and Kent School Services Network staff have ensured students still can receive counseling, and found “ways in which we can support them in having their basic needs met during this crisis.”  

Rockford Public Schools

In Rockford, which began its plan April 15, the participation rate is near 90 percent, said Mike Ramm, assistant superintendent of instruction.

“I am really proud of our teachers’ efforts to reach every student in their classes,” Ramm said, but emphasized they will keep reaching out to those not participating. “A challenge is ensuring kids are going to be engaged and participating and motivated in the same way they would be if they were in a classroom.”

Most students are accessing instruction through an online portal called Rams Connect, with lessons provided by grade level as well as resources for families and social and emotional support. Even though all students are issued devices, some don’t have good internet connectivity, and about 10 percent are doing paper-and-pencil work mailed by teachers, Ramm said.

Meeting the needs of all students with consistent, accessible instruction is key, he added: “Distance learning is a pretty accepted practice at the college level, but we’re talking about 5- and 6-year-olds engaged in it.” 

‘We know this personal connection is very important, especially for elementary students.’

– Jennifer Patzer, Rockford fourth-grade teacher

A major challenge is addressing individual students’ different learning styles in a timely way when you don’t have a teacher walking around the classroom, Ramm said. To provide flexibility for families, there are not set instruction times for students working at home.  

“One of the challenges for sure is to say, this student needs instructional help. In a classroom you can do it in the moment. In this situation, there’s lapse time.” However, teachers can meet virtually during “office hours” for one-to-one help or small-group instruction, he said. 

No grades are being assigned to elementary students, and secondary students are on a pass or incomplete basis with no penalties.  

Patzer and other Valley View teachers assign their fourth graders six lessons per week, due by noon Friday but teachers can allow more time. Students can email her questions or have video conferences with her if needed. 

Video lessons like “The Lucky Star” book have worked well, she said, with teachers taking turns creating them. The lessons help students feel a “personal connection to their teachers,” she added, and enable them to work largely on their own by following the teacher’s directions. 

“My hope is that this eases up some of the teaching responsibility that has now fallen on the parents,” Patzer said. “We can only imagine how hard it is to juggle this with everything else families have going on.” 


Maranda talks distance learning with Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Caniff

Fourth graders in Rockford studied a storybook through an online video narrated by their teacher
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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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