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Making the best of it

Unique challenge of school in a pandemic calls for unique options

Editor’s note: With almost all Kent ISD districts now in session, either virtually or in person, SNN reporters talked to parents, teachers and students across our coverage area about the start of this uniquely challenging school year. This is the first of a two-part roundup.

East Grand Rapids

Ian and Gina Borton’s daughter, Posie, is a fourth grader at Lakeside Elementary. Ian is an Aquinas College communications professor, and Gina teaches at Central Middle in the Forest Hills Public Schools district.

Posie made the choice to attend school fully virtual this year, said her dad. She will learn via the Pearson plan, with non-district teachers.

Why that choice? “She’s actually looking forward to the online (method),” Ian Borton said. “I think she’s looking forward to having the freedom to learn on her own time, to swing on the swing in the front yard, to not wear a mask all day, learn ukulele. … I think it might be different if she was in middle school or graduating this year.”

Dad’s view on all things school-related: “I feel like since March of this year I’ve gotten really good at saying ‘Well, we’ll see.’ We’re learning to adjust, to do our best with the information we’ve got at the time, and to not be too rigid with expectations and rules so we can accommodate that flexibility.”

For Posie’s part: “I’m excited about learning differently and being able to tell people what it’s like,” she said. “I’ll miss my friends, but I think I’ll be OK.”

Besides, she will have her two cats — Peter Perker and Pepper Pawtz — and two fish — Goldie and Silvie — who live in a water tank in her bedroom, to keep her company.

And she might even get a chance to do some climate research, she said.

“I really want global warming to stop, because I love penguins.”

A bright side for Mom: Gina Borton said she’s noticed there’s been a togetherness she said feels unique to the crisis, to counter “so many parents who are really struggling with this decision and wishing they knew the right thing to do.” 

“If your child is doing virtual with Pearson, there’s (an online) group for that. People are posting photos of their work spaces to give others ideas. … Someone posted a question about earbuds and a bunch of people jumped in to talk about the ones they were using.

“Parents are really there for each other in a way I haven’t seen before.”

Old-soul wisdom for this Forest Hills teacher: “I’m nervous about going back in person, but I’m so excited to get at those seventh graders. Who doesn’t want to save a seventh grader from the terror they feel, being in a new, big building — right? One year I had a student tell me, ‘You don’t have to try so hard to save us, Mrs. Borton. We’re supposed to be a little scared.’”


September Buys is an award-winning art teacher, this year working at Crossroads Middle. The district is offering a hybrid of in-person and online learning as well as a full-time virtual option.

September Buys

Her biggest concern when schools closed abruptly in March still looms large: “Everything that happens in an art room, students are sharing materials. We don’t always have enough when we are in the classroom, and that’s a huge barrier when they have to be at home. … That’s one of my biggest concerns: How do I teach art the way I know kids need it?”

With online learning amid a historic event such as a global pandemic, Buys said, “they need even more opportunities to express what’s going on, (and) the last thing we need is more rote assignments. I want my class to be fun, I want them to look forward to logging on. I want them to be excited. It really sucks a lot of the joy (out) of learning in this way we have to do it.”

How she helped address the need: Over the summer, Buys cleaned her and her two young daughters’ closets and hosted a sale of sorts: In exchange for her castoffs, those interested were asked to buy items from an online wish list of art supplies for her students.

“That was a little bit of problem-solving that did help alleviate a bit of stress, and just means less I ask the school for, and more for another teacher to be able to ask for. And now my closets are empty, so that feels good.”

Hoping for facetime: With both Buys and her students in masks all day, “I’m not going to be able to tell if someone’s watery eyes are because they’re bored, tired, were just laughing, or are sad about something. I plan on bringing some tents and set those up outside my classroom so we can sit outside and work when it’s nice, and at least have some face-to-face interactions.”

The working parents club: At the time of this interview, Buys was still trying to make her own kids’ bus schedule jibe with her own work schedule. And then there’s exposure to the coronavirus: She admits she bought UV light wands to use in class.

“I don’t even know if that works,” she said with a laugh, “but I want to stay at school as long as possible. I also don’t want to get sick. It’s that or not work, which isn’t an option.”

Wyoming High School junior Jovany Martinez looks forward to returning to school in person


Wyoming High School junior Jovany Martinez began school online Aug. 25 for the district’s two-week remote start, and plans to begin in person Tuesday, Sept. 8 for a slate of classes including two Wyoming Middle College courses; band, in which he plays the saxophone; AP English and anatomy.

Following high school tennis practice at Lamar Park, he shared his feelings on returning to school.

“I know if I was doing remote learning, I wouldn’t be as motivated to do the work or try as hard as if I was in person. I get distracted easily.”

Jovany’s father, Genaro Martinez, has worked at a local food processor throughout the pandemic and his mother, Martina Martinez, is a stay-at-home mom. “My dad thinks it will be easier to go back in person because we are learning more and will probably get better grades than just doing online where no one is inspecting us directly,” Jovany said.

How the pandemic impacted his family: “One of my father’s friends died (with COVID-19),” Jovany said. “It was sad. He was also dealing with tuberculosis.”

Relatives in Mexico City also went without work for a stretch of time, he said, but his immediate family, including three older siblings, have remained well.

What Jovany looks forward to: While the lockdown provided some time to de-stress from school’s demands, he said he is eager to be back. He’s especially interested in his Middle College courses: Survey of American Government and Appreciation of World and Western Music.  

“I’m looking forward to seeing my friends again. Some of the curriculum sounds interesting,” said Jovany, who plans to attend Western Michigan University after finishing Middle College with his associate degree. He hopes to major in finance.

Challenges he’s expecting: “I think the masks will definitely be a challenge, and social distancing because of how students are.” 

Starting online and transitioning to in-person instruction also seems difficult to do seamlessly and without a lot of confusion, he said. 

What can students learn from this pandemic that’s positive?

“Anything could happen. We are going to be more prepared for future events. We will probably take more precautions.”

Three more for in-person: As junior Steven Dang also finished tennis practice, his dad, Wallin, and sister, Samantha, an eighth grader at Wyoming Junior High, arrived to give him a ride home. The family also includes mom, Tammy, and sister, Sabrina, also an eighth grader. The students are all returning to school in person Sept. 8.

Online I feel like you are stuck at home and you get bored. In person, they teach better.’

— Wyoming junior Steven Dang

Steven is also a Middle College student. His other classes include precalculus, AP biology, band and English. He is interested in engineering. Samantha looks forward to band, math and English and wants to be a lawyer someday.

How he feels about going back to school: Online I feel like you are stuck at home and you get bored. In person, they teach better. There’s better communication. Let’s say for instance there’s an internet issue. If you ask a question, it might lag. In person, you can always ask and they will teach you.

He looks forward to: “Seeing friends and being social.”

What could be a challenge: “Probably talking,” Steven said. “You will probably hear a lot of people mumbling (with masks on). It’s hard to understand sometimes.”

How Samantha feels about returning in person:Online, at home, is distracting because there’s other stuff to do. In school, it’s better to learn.”

What Dad thinks: Wallin Dang said he is comfortable with his children returning in person, though he had some concerns. He said people need to follow the rules and guidelines to stay healthy. “You never know,” he said.

Wyoming Junior High eighth-grader Samantha, junior Steven and dad Wallin Dang shared feeling about returning to school
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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio


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