Dan Shutes, fifth-grade teacher at Paw Paw Later Elementary School, reads to his students during his triweekly online video chat. 
Photo provided by Shutes
Dan Shutes, fifth-grade teacher at Paw Paw Later Elementary School, reads to his students during his triweekly online video chat. Photo provided by Shutes

From Detroit to Paw Paw and beyond, Michigan educators are seeing how the technological gap is creating an online learning divide for students homebound. 

MICHIGAN — Learning doesn’t stop, even during a pandemic.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order on April 2 suspending face-to-face learning at K-12 schools for the remainder of the school year. It’s impacting over 100,000 teachers and staff.

“There is no video chat or homework packet that can replace the value of a highly trained, experienced teacher working with students in a classroom, but we must continue to provide equitable educational opportunities for students during this public health crisis,” Whitmer said in the announcement. 

The school closures created an unprecedented situation for educators statewide who are trying to keep their students engaged online. Although some teachers in rural towns find that not every student has the technology to stay connected.

Dan Shutes, fifth grade teacher at Paw Paw Later Elementary School (17 miles southwest of Kalamazoo) said that right when schools closed due to COVID-19, the Paw Paw Public Schools District administration sent out surveys to families to get a pulse of who had internet access.

“It was in the neighborhood of between 80-90 percent of students have internet access,” Shutes said.

GETTING BACK TO THE BASICS

Shutes said that when the shutdown first started and school was cancelled initially for three weeks, the staff teamed up and put together hard copy learning packets.

“It was pretty spur of the moment; we wanted to put together some meaningful work for the students,” Shutes said. “We also made the copies available via PDF and shared that on the school Facebook pages and school district website.”

Shutes said that out of the 26 students in his class about 21 students picked up hardcopies before the stay-at home orders; the remaining families used the online version.

“Even the families with internet access a majority of the people like hard copy they can grab,” Shutes said, adding that utilizing the online version, though, doesn’t mean that families have printer access.

Shutes said that he and other teachers pushed out a lot of educational content to students at first.

“We’ve pumped the brakes on what we want to send out to families,” he said. “In hindsight, we might have overwhelmed them. We are keeping it simple in a time like this.”

The scaled-back plan includes reading, mini math lessons, and more. Shutes also does a 40-minute, triweekly conference with his class through a video app, Zoom.

“Right now I spend a portion of the time reading to the class,” he said.

Amanda Maurer, Lawton Middle School eighth-grade science teacher also teaches near Kalamazoo, and said that the school district is not a “1 to 1 ratio” for computers per student in the small school district that has one elementary school, middle school, and one high school. She added that a larger percentage of Lawton students are not in a position to have computers.

Amanda-distance-learning
Amanda Maurer, Lawton Middle School eighth-grade science teacher teaches students during an online video chat.

Photo provided by Maurer

BRIDGING THE TECHNOLOGICAL GAP

“We do have quite a few families who are choice schools meaning they live in other places and not in the district boundary,” Maurer said. “They choose to come to us for the most part because we can provide a smaller class size.”

The rural community has a lot of grape farms (a Welch’s facility is located nearby) and many families have farming roots that spans several generations.

“When this all came about we knew for sure we’d have students who didn’t have access to the internet,” Maurer said. “There were some families who asked to borrow our (Google) Chromebooks from the school and we allowed it.”

She said that there wasn’t a way for her, or other teachers, to know if students have internet access at home. Maurer, like other teachers, provided hard copy and online lessons for her students. She also has Google classroom, which gives her students access to receive and submit homework assignments online. Maurer’s lessons now mainly focus on schoolwork review. 

“We didn’t want to try to do anything brand new,” she said. 

Maurer said of her roughly 85 sixth to eighth-grade students (divided into several classes) about 12 have contacted her about the online assignments. She said before the pandemic, those were primarily the same 12 who always inquired about homework. Maurer doesn’t know the number of students who are doing the work sans technology.

Maurer, a mother of two young kids, said she finds it challenging sometimes managing this educational piece with her students while at home-rearing her children. Another challenge she said, is that she won’t see her eighth-grade students anymore because they are all going on to ninth grade in the 2020-21 school year.

Maurer said even though the homework the students are doing doesn’t count toward credit or a grade, she encourages her students to do it because she wants them ready come fall.

“It is still my job to make sure they’re prepared as possible,” she said.

Santha Varghese, Schulze Elementary School speech therapist in Detroit said that this situation is “hard.”

‘A MEDICAL WARZONE’ 

“Detroit in the news is a medical warzone. For us to check on (students) that’s cool, but to give them packets, etc., those aren’t necessarily reasonable options,” Varghese said, adding that all of her students don’t have computers, though many might have smartphones in the house. “But can everybody get on it and do work? That’s not reasonable.”

Out of her 30 students, about eight students were responsive to the lessons. Varghese said that despite the United States being affluent it is the land of the “haves and have nots” and she is concerned about her students surviving, getting enough food, not being abused, and other weightier matters. 

“We don’t even know if they’re OK. When we return we’ll know what students are intact — even teachers,” she said, adding that she hopes to see all her students. It’s going to be a sad scenario. We all know someone who lost someone particularly in the city.”

She added that some in the African American community are underinsured, underemployed, and face comorbidities, pre-existing health conditions. While students’ education is important, it’s not the focal point at this moment per se.

Varghese said that some students are behind and with students going onto the next grade level they will be doubly behind. 

“(There’s) so many discounted people with temporary living or are undocumented or are homeless,” she said. “I’m passionate about it.”

Varghese added that despite these overwhelming challenges that are impacting student education, one thing that is not lacking is the human spirit. 

“I’m not a person without hope,” she said. “I’m a Democrat. We can change. It’s a lot of prayers we got to lift up for our little babies. It’s going to be very different in September. (This situation) could be a turning point for people that education is important and maybe it will be that much more valued. That is what I’m going to pray for.”