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In class, online, both? Parents, students wrestle with choices

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 second of a two-part roundup.

Comstock Park
Mallory Oberholtzer has opted for all-virtual instruction for her daughter Salaira, who is going into first grade at Stoney Creek Elementary. She plans to keep her daughter at home until she’s sure it’s safe. The district’s offering a choice of hybrid or fully online learning plans. 

“We’ll see how it goes for the first portion of the year, and re-evaluate our options again closer to that time,” she said. From a large family herself, Oberholtzer said her daughter gets plenty of socialization.

‘I wish I could go to school full time every day. It’s easier to learn with less distractions.’

— Tyson Perkins, Comstock Park ninth grader

Working and learning at home: She is a freelance photographer, and her husband, Jeff, works from home. She thinks overseeing her daughter’s education is easier than if Salaira were older. 

“There’s so many free resources,” Obertholtzer said. Her daughter uses Raz-Kids for reading, SplashLearn for math practice and ABCmouse.

In-school is best: Another district mom, Theresa Lennon, said she is anxious for her kids to be back in school full time. They are Pine Island fourth grader Deandre Ellis, freshman Derrick Ellis and senior Logan Witvoet.

Lennon, who said she works more than 50 hours a week, admits she finds it difficult to oversee online instruction. Plus, “They need some kind of socialization,” she said. 

Comstock Park Eighth grader DJ Baker would like to go back to school in person full time

She said her youngest son needs to keep busy, although it is difficult for him to focus on school work. She also feels bad for Logan, she said, who will likely miss his senior year of wrestling.

Students weigh in: Eighth grader DJ Baker and ninth grader Tyson Perkins will both go to school in person two days a week as part of the hybrid plan approved earlier this month by the Comstock Park Board of Education.

“Online, there’s way too many distractions and I can’t keep up with everything,” said DJ, who will likely attend in-person classes on Monday and Tuesday and the rest of the week online.

“I wish I could go to school full time every day,” Tyson said. “It’s easier to learn with less distractions.” He said he has two brothers and a dog at home, which makes it harder to concentrate, and thinks it will be safe to be in school if all protocols are followed.

Keshia Alhasan, second from right, says she and her husband, Yahia, agree their children won’t go into Grand Rapids classrooms this year

Grand Rapids 

As a mother of four children, Keshia Alhasan says sending them back into classrooms this school year is not an option. Grand Rapids Public Schools have started school online for at least the first nine weeks, and for her kids that’s how it will stay, she said. 

“The risks are too high,” she said. “I couldn’t live with myself if something happened to one of my children.” 

Even if GRPS makes in-class instruction available after the first marking period, Keshia said she and her husband, Yahia, agree in-home instruction is the best and safest choice for their children: Sukania and Laylia at Aberdeen Elementary, and Suhila and Karrem at Union High School. The kids are on board too, she says.

Suhila, a Union freshman, said she accepts all-virtual school for now, as long as it doesn’t continue all through high school.

“I feel better in person with people, I engage better in person,” Suhila said. “But then again, online, it’s OK. I’m fine with that too. … I still have three more years, so the first year, I could skip that.” 

She’s doing well online so far in her classes, including honors biology, English and U.S. history, she said, but isn’t excited about PE. “It’s kind of hard to do gym over a Chromebook,” she said.  

School has been more stressful for first grader Sukania, who had a nightmare before the first day of school, her mother said. She’s helped her youngest get through her lessons while the others have been largely self-sufficient, she said. 

‘I couldn’t live with myself if something happened to one of my children.’

— Keshia Alhasan, GRPS mother of four

Sukania and the other children have been studying the real world, too, including the COVID-19 pandemic and President Trump’s handling of it. Keshia summed up their feeling: “‘He’s acting worse than we are, we’re kids.’” She agrees. “We’re like the players in a chess game, and he’s playing with all our lives.” 

She’s not willing to do that with her children. And while she understands it’s hard for working parents to stay home, she wishes more schools would go online for the entire year. 

“We’re going to have more young people dying or getting sick,” she said. “If we can at least shut down one part, which is our future, and keep them protected, then I think we’ll have a good outcome.”      

Kelloggsville’s Wendy Gemzer with sons Tanner, left, and Austin

Kelloggsville

For Wendy Gemzer, decisions about what to choose for her children this fall were doubly difficult: an almost 5-year-old who is starting his first year at West Kelloggsville Elementary, and a 14-year-old who will be a freshman student at the high school.

The district is offering both in-person and online options for all grades. Gemzer chose in-person for her kindergartner, Tanner. Her freshman, Austin, chose online learning, having taken classes that way during summer.

About her younger child: “I’m choosing to send him only because I don’t have the patience to be a teacher and think he’d learn much better in school.” Though she was scared for him that he’d be entering a world of Plexiglas and masks and temperature checks, “I think Kelloggsville is doing the best they possibly can for our kids.”

That could change: In both cases, Gemzer said, if she sensed things were not going well, she wouldn’t hesitate to make a switch — especially for her in-person student, “if there is word of COVID around him.”

Ashley Headworth has some of those same concerns for her daughter, Isabella, who is going into second grade, also at West Elementary.

She used to work at the school and said it is staffed by a great group of educators. But she worried about some of the unknowns she was still facing, including busing. 

Options not an option: Headworth and her fiance chose in-person learning for their daughter, she said, because as a working household, “keeping her home and one of us quitting our job was not an option, as well as putting that responsibility on our day care provider was not an option.”

Leave it to the experts: “She needs that educational interaction with a professional. I did not go to school for teaching and have no desire to attempt it,” she joked.

Jeff Larsen, a Lowell High English teacher, and children, from left, Thea, Brooklyn and Jude

Lowell

Jeff Larsen is an English teacher at Lowell High School, entering his 27th year there. The father of three also will teach an online course at GRCC this semester. The district is starting the year with an in-person/virtual hybrid model, and planning on full-time in-person learning beginning Sept. 14 with a remote option. 

Notable quote: “I haven’t felt this much stress since my first year. I never thought I’d be putting together a will because of anything school-related, but here we are.”

His view from the teacher’s desk:There’s no perfect plan. Ours will allow for the personal interaction students missed during the final nine weeks of last year while hopefully keeping us safer in the process. It will allow us to bond with students, and students to bond with classmates for a few weeks; that might make the — in my opinion — inevitable return to online learning a bit easier.”

Speaking of online learning: “I like to think of myself as someone who’s kept up with technology, but teaching from home last spring showed me just how much more I needed to learn. I’m fortunate to have the resources I need to teach remotely, but I know not every teacher has those tools. What’s more concerning is knowing how many of our students lack those tools or reliable internet service.”

And as both teacher and parent: “With three young kids, I really hope I can work from my classroom as long as possible. I totally sympathize with parents who had to learn how to teach their little ones last spring while keeping up with their own full-time jobs. I often found myself sequestered in our utility room to record daily videos for my classes, and I spent two weeks in our garage this June scoring AP Lit exams. I suspect that space might end up becoming my ‘office’ again later this fall.”

‘I haven’t felt this much stress since my first year.’

— Jeff Larsen, 27th-year teacher in Lowell

Larsen said everything about the return to school this year is stressful for his family. 

“My wife and I worry about what will happen if any one of us is exposed to the virus, and we’ve had long talks about whether or not to send our trio back to school. We decided that their need for socialization and to connect with their teachers is something we just can’t provide with a laptop or tablet.”

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Karen Gentry
Karen Gentry
Karen Gentry covers Comstock Park. She is from Evansville, Indiana and St. Joseph, Mich. and a graduate of Lake Michigan Catholic High School and Central Michigan University. She moved to the Grand Rapids area in the mid-1980s and has been a resident of Comstock Park since 2002. She understands the complexity, rewards and challenges of the teaching profession as she has five years of experience as a high school teacher at River Valley High School in Three Oaks, Mich. and St. Stephen High School in Saginaw. As a reporter for the Advance Newspapers and Mlive she covered Sparta, Kent City and Northview schools. She is happy to be reunited with some of her journalism colleagues and writing about Comstock Park Public Schools for the School News Network. Read Karen's full bio or email Karen.

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