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How Michigan educators & students have adapted to learning in the pandemic, a year later

Posted at 11:09 AM, Mar 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-10 23:24:41-05

(WXYZ) — Lost learning, growing disparities and exacerbated achievement gaps which led to student dropouts could have devastating long-term effects on individual lives and the economy as a whole.

At the same time, more Black and brown families started homeschooling and there was good that emerged from pandemic learning that could transform education for the better in the future.

Let’s take a look back, as we look forward. Being a Michigan educator in a pandemic has been hard.

“It’s been a rocky road,” says Dominic Gonzales, a senior at the Academy of the Americas High School.

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“It’s pulled a bandaid off a gaping wound that’s been happening,” says Bernita Bradley, founder of The Village Outreach and Engage Detroit.

“The extreme workload that is different and, more, this year,” says Jennifer Young, a 5th grade teacher at South Harbor Charter Academy.

On March 13, 2020, education as we have always known it, changed.

“Stunned or surprised, I wasn’t sure what to think,” says Young.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order to stop holding in-person classes to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Young had just minutes to prepare her Ypsilanti 5th graders.

“It was more about just load up your backpack. They didn’t take home pencil bags or clean out their desks or anything,” says Young remembering how she made sure they had what they needed for an upcoming book report. At that time, she thought she would see them in two weeks.

As the ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ order was extended, again and again, metro Detroit Schools sprung into action to help students adapt to learning from home.

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Village Oaks Elementary in Novi packed up kid-sized desks and chairs from empty classrooms and delivered them to more than 200 young students who needed a desk, just their size.

Tablets, computers and WiFi hotspots were also procured and delivered by districts across the state.

Getting students to log on to class from home hasn’t been easy.

“What can I do? They’re at home and I’m at work, I can’t leave my job! Who is going to pay the bills? Chippewa’s not going to,” says a single mom in Clinton Township who works as a nurse and doesn't have an option to work from home.

Gonzales says motivating himself to participate in virtual school was tough, especially because at first teachers were still figuring things out and struggling with internet connection themselves.

In the last year, he has learned just how determined and disciplined he really is.

2020 taught him that he is stronger than he realized.

“I’ve realized that no matter what happens, I’m just going to get it done. No matter what, get everything I gotta do done,” says Gonzales.

For some teens he knows in Southwest Detroit, attending school in the pandemic hasn’t been a priority.

“Now it’s mostly about working over school,” he says.

Many families have been dealing with COVID-19 related job loss and illness.

“I know a lot of people want to help their families. They are at that age now, they want to work, they want to provide and school turned out unmotivating. And a lot of students just lost interest,” says Gonzales.

The pandemic highlighted a problem that already existed in Detroit, students feeling disconnected from the education system.

That’s what motivated Bernita Bradley to launch Engaged Detroit in the middle of the pandemic.

“Reality is, even when school was in, we had 16 percent of our kids reading on grade level,” says Bradley.

“Now parents are concerned that that gap, has grown even more,” says Bradley.

The pandemic has pushed more Black and brown families to make a change.

Bradley created a support group for parents wanting to take their child’s education into their own hands.

“We have a lot of families, just due to the pandemic, they decided to home school,” says Bradley.

Homeschooling, compared to virtual learning, Bradley explains, gives the student control over how they learn and when. They can help design a curriculum that interests them and take breaks when they need them.

“It may be forensics this week, next week it may be phlebotomy or it may be anthropology and it all links back to science class,” says Bradley.

The parents in the program say it was like pulling teeth to get their child to log in to virtual class, but now that they are homeschooling, it’s hard to get their kids to stop talking about what they learned. It’s seeing their children excited about learning that lets them know they’ve made the right decision.

The pandemic has turned the tables on the education system. Bradley has a message for school administrators.

“Parents are your source and your access. If you don’t partner with them, they are going to leave.”

When Detroit opened for in-person summer school, parents and community advocates blocked the school buses in protest, saying children’s lives were being put at risk. Months later, thousands were protesting in Lansing demanding the return of youth competitive sports.

Some educators continue to go the extra mile to stay connected with their students. Novi Woods Elementary School principal David Ascher creates videos in which he has put the school motto to song, talked about the importance of sharing your feelings and acknowledging students struggles while encouraging them to pay attention to those inner voices. He even takes them on virtual field trips.

“When you are under the water, do you wonder what you see? Do you wonder what it sounds like? I’m going to dive a little bit deeper boys and girls. Let’s see what we can find when we go scuba diving!”

Fifth-grade teacher Jennifer Young helped virtual students build a homemade composter and assigned an interactive Black History Month project assigning each student someone to research who made a significant impact in history. Then they made videos about the person to present to the class.

In the midst of year filled with tragedy, death, illness, loneliness, frustration and fears, there were many moments of joy and celebration that offered hope.

Teachers organizing car parades through their students' neighborhoods.

WXYZ Channel 7 and Scripps Broadcasting partnering with local schools to organize drive-thru book giveaways.

In the Spring of 2020, Michigan State University held a virtual graduation ceremony, complete with a virtual marching band performance and many motivational messages from successful alumni

Watching from home, journalism major Syndey Nassif’s mom had the camera rolling.

“She of course made me stand in front of the screen and get the tassle turn, officially becoming an alumni. Which was special, not the same, but still special,” says Nassif.

Now, one year after the pandemic began, schools are re-opening their doors, with new floor plans and mask-wearing requirements.

“They have to stay in their little pods, so at lunch they have to eat with their group of 10,” says Young.

Students are behind on the curriculum, but Young says she knows they have all learned a lot.

“I’ve learned how to be flexible,” says Young with a laugh adding that she has learned a lot about technological teaching tools too.

“I think that they’ve learned a lot about perseverance and empathy and compassion and encouragement,” says Young emotionally adding how proud she is of her students.

In August, Gonzales was the only student elected by Governor Whitmer to be on the state’s ‘Return to School’ Advisory Council. He is now on the state’s Education Recovery Council offering input on how to move forward.

“I think students have a way bigger voice their whole way of education, moving forward. The ways of learning. Not just what happens inside the school,” says Gonzales.

“Moving forward, what will work is us working together, to reimagine education on all levels,” says Bradley.

Education in Michigan will never again be the same.

Hopefully, it will be better.

Resources for elementary learners in Detroit: https://brilliantdetroit.org

Resources for Michigan virtual learners: https://www.skillman.org/blog/cov19resources

Resources for Michigan families with special needs students https://www.michiganallianceforfamilies.org/our-partners/

Additional Coronavirus information and resources:

View a global coronavirus tracker with data from Johns Hopkins University.

See complete coverage on our Coronavirus Continuing Coverage page.

Visit our The Rebound Detroit, a place where we are working to help people impacted financially from the coronavirus. We have all the information on everything available to help you through this crisis and how to access it.