Commentary

Educators Step Up to Fill Distance Learning Gap

District, charter, private schools adapt while state officials wait

A March 20 memo from the Michigan Department of Education declared that emergency online education would not count toward a school’s required number of instructional hours. The declaration added confusion and frustration to the state-ordered school building closures prompted by the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Among those most upset by the discouraging message in the department’s memo were educators in places like the West Bloomfield School District, which had already acted quickly to prepare. While the gap in state leadership has left students and teachers in the lurch, many schools and teachers are pressing on to meet student needs even as they adapt to the new landscape.

One Oakland County district was well prepared for digital learning long before the current crisis. As the governor ordered buildings to be closed, Oxford’s virtual school has just continued with most of its usual activities. Its teachers are accustomed to using remote learning tools like Zoom to help their students, although many are now facing the added responsibility of educating their own children at home.

The U.S. Department of Education recently issued a strong statement that federal requirements to appropriately serve students with disabilities should not hinder attempts to expand the reach of online instruction. Oxford Virtual Academy principal Janet Schell says that her team has only had to adjust slightly how it serves students with special needs. Staffers are no longer able to meet them in person, but they are using a wide range of digital tools. “We’re really keeping an eye on our kids who are saying they’re down or struggling,” Schell said.

Elsewhere, many Michigan families are reportedly seeking to enroll their children into cyber schools — public charter schools that primarily provide instruction online. But, with the two official count periods already completed, current law won’t allow funds to follow the student to the new school for the rest of the academic year. A spokesperson for Michigan International Prep School says it has taken in about 70 more students since the shutdown, but serving more without getting additional funds would cause too much of a strain.

Examples abound of brick-and-mortar charter schools that have adjusted their approach to engage and support students during the emergency building closure. Staff members from southwest Detroit’s Escuela Avancemos Academy have delivered packets of schoolwork and food bags (repurposing school lunch dollars) to children's homes, serving a community that includes many native Spanish speakers.

Teachers at both Escuela and another nearby charter school, Dearborn’s Advanced Technology Academy, continue to use Google Classroom to share educational resources and interact with their mostly economically disadvantaged student populations.

According to chief financial officer Robert Wittmann, Advanced Technology Academy is preparing for a fully virtual program, should building closures be extended beyond the current April 13 deadline. He says most students already have access to devices, with enough others available from the school to lend out to meet the need. The school is also surveying families to see who still lacks home internet access, as different providers step up by offering reduced-rate services to low-income families across Michigan.

Eagle Village, a rural residential treatment facility located in Osceola County, continues to partner with the Lighthouse Academy charter school to educate and care for the abused and neglected youths on its campus. Teachers rapidly put together a special academic plan to meet the new educational challenges associated with social distancing.

“Our team is going above and beyond with great thought, focused on goals for each youth and creatively, creating a sense of normalcy, structure and meaning in each day,” said Carol Hyble, Eagle Village’s vice president of advancement.

Teachers at another charter school, Ivywood Classical Academy, quickly crafted new lesson plans to modify their delivery for educating students at home. Meanwhile, unaffected by the Education Department’s memo, a diverse set of nonpublic schools — from Detroit Cristo Rey High School to Everest Collegiate High School and Academy in Clarkston and Calvary Baptist Academy in Midland — quickly transitioned to distance learning programs.

While the department’s memo classifies current public school online learning as supplemental, the state-funded nonprofit Michigan Virtual is sharing digital teacher training and student learning tools at no cost to help fill the gap. It also created the fast-growing Facebook group Keep Michigan Learning, one of several emerging social media venues for parents and educators to share practical advice and encouragement.

As the call to embrace the digital age takes on more relevance, local educators are generating effective responses. State officials have an opportunity to lead. It’s time not only to fully support schools in providing online learning but also in ensuring that funds reach students wherever their educational needs are being met.