As Michigan’s teachers and students ramp up for the second half of a challenging school year, the holiday break has offered school leaders a chance to reflect on their fall semester successes and where improvements are needed.
While superintendents throughout the state have lauded the flexibility of students, teachers and parents in moving between different learning formats amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they are seeing a “light at the end of the tunnel” with teachers now eligible to begin being vaccinated.
Here are 12 districts’ takes on what measures have worked and what their leaders hope to do a better job at in the second half of the year to get K-12 education back on track.
Dearborn Public Schools
What worked: Despite being in virtual learning for the entire year, Dearborn has improved its delivery of instruction in the virtual setting and maximized the impact teachers have as the year goes on, Communications Director David Mustonen said. While there have been growing pains, Mustonen said teachers have had success in connecting with students.
“As much as our parents have stepped up and become the best possible support person and teacher in the home, a trained, professional teacher makes a difference in student learning – whether that be in the classroom or through an electronic medium like online learning,” Mustonen said.
What needs work: With no immediate plans to transition to in-person classes due to still high COVID-19 positivity rates in Wayne County, Mustonen said the district must continue to look for ways to adjust its schedule to allow more students to have live instruction from teachers.
“We adjusted the schedules (at the middle school) so that occurred more often and we saw some real success with that,” he said. “I think we would like to try and expand that at the high school level, so we’re able to deliver more real-time live instruction.”
East Lansing Public Schools
What worked: While East Lansing looks to phase students back into face-to-face learning in the next month, Superintendent Dori Leyko said teachers, parapros and staff have developed solid remote learning programs that are intentional in supporting students’ mental health and other needs.
“Also, the East Lansing community has been extremely committed to supporting our families in need through food donations, monetary donations, meal delivery and more,” Leyko said. “Our community has really come together in a time of need.”
What needs work: The district will continue to create ways to connect students with each other to create a “sense of community” that being in-person together brings, Leyko said.
“Students have been out of school for almost a year and many have missed out on milestone events that they’ve looked forward to for years,” Leyko said. “As students return to the buildings, we’ll need to support them in academic and social-emotional ways that we’ve never experienced before.”
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Forest Hills Public School District
What worked: Forest Hills is happy it has had kids at all grade levels coming to school since September, Superintendent Dan Behm said, noting that students, teachers and families have been resilient and flexible in a year filled with challenges.
“As a system, we have learned how to adapt at a faster pace,” Behm said. “With each iteration, we are getting better and better at the adaptive process. These teachers and families made a major shift with very short notice and we have seen numerous instances of people thriving under these difficult circumstances.”
What needs work: The district is working with the health department to deploy a more precise approach to COVID-19 quarantine situations, Behm said. If the district can reduce its quarantine numbers by 50%, Behm said it can keep schools open for learning throughout the remainder of the school year.
“Our lived experiences and the countywide data from the past four months of school suggests that we are quarantining far too many people when we have a person who turns out to be COVID positive in our schools,” Behm said.
“The quarantine issue has had the largest disruptive effect to our staffing, daily operations, and consistent learning for students. Adapting the quarantine rules to the emerging data will be a huge improvement.”
Grand Rapids Public Schools
What worked: Despite not offering any in-person instruction in the first half of the year, Grand Rapids Public Schools Spokesman John Helmholdt said virtual learning has had some silver linings, including bringing many teachers up to speed on how to better use technology. One-to-one device distribution and collaboration between teachers, he said, has greatly aided the learning process.
“Because of Zoom, because of the fact that many teachers are learning to use technology – sometimes for the first time – we’re seeing a significantly greater use and expertise with technology even among teachers who may not have used tech as much as they could have,” Helmholdt said. “You have teachers sharing videos and lesson plans across different grade levels and schools.”
What needs work: As GRPS begins transitioning into hybrid learning for all students on Jan. 19, Helmholdt said the district’s biggest focus is on how to simultaneously run both virtual and in-person instruction.
“There are certainly a lot of logistical challenges to that, but we’re more than ready,” he said. “We were planning to do this in October, but due to the second wave or surge, we decided to remain virtual for the remainder of the first semester. That just gave us more time to ensure our buildings were ready and that the technology is ready.”
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Jackson Public Schools
What worked: Operating under a hybrid learning model until the past two months, Superintendent Jeff Beal sees both the challenges and successes that have come from quickly altering how JPS educated students this fall.
As students return to in-person classes in the hybrid format on Jan. 11, Beal said he’s confident JPS can respond to its students’ technology needs after implementing a one-to-one technology device solution, while also implementing innovative measures like busses carrying WiFi and hot spots into neighborhoods in need of internet service.
“What you saw was teaching move and transform from a model that had been in place for years to something that was much more technology friendly, or technology driven,” Beal said. ” I think one of the things we did really successfully was gauging the community’s needs and looking for areas that we could be more helpful and make our online platform more synchronous.”
What needs work: Beal ultimately wants students to be back in the classroom more than they were able to be in the first half of the year. He’s still focused on finding ways to better address the social-emotional needs of the students as they gradually return to a more consistent school routine.
“I’ve often said, and I don’t mean any ill will to mathematicians, the children don’t necessarily come to school for algebra 2. They come to school for their friends,” Beal said. “They come to school for the social (aspects), they come to school because they like the teacher or like the atmosphere, it feels safe and feels like a place they can grow and stretch. We want that experience for them again.”
Novi Community School District
What worked: While the COVID-19 pandemic caused many districts throughout the state to change the format of their instruction, Novi Superintendent Steve Matthews said his district has been very consistent in delivering the options of hybrid and virtual instruction at all grade levels. Only a state order banning in-person instruction in high schools prevented Novi from delivering the hybrid format the first half of the year, he said.
“One of the major successes in our district is we’ve been very consistent and had a hybrid, in-person learning opportunity for students every day from Sept. 8,” he said.
What needs work: While the hybrid learning format has served the district well from a consistency standpoint, Matthews said the district is focused on improving the experience for students on the days they aren’t in the classroom.
“Hybrid teachers are teaching a set of in-person students, but they also have a set of students who are at home,” Matthews said. “One of the unique challenges of our approach has been, ‘How do we make those at-home days meaningful for the students in our district?’”
Portage Public Schools
What worked: Portage has provided families with face-to-face or virtual instruction since the beginning of the year in grades K-5, Superintendent Mark Bielang said, and teachers have adapted to ensure students stay engaged in whatever learning format they’re in. Beilang also said he believes students’ social-emotional needs are being met as much as possible by teachers, even in the home environment.
“A lot of teachers have come up with some great ideas on how to structure time with online learning so it’s not just a replication of what they do in the classroom, but it really meets that online environment,” Bielang said.
What needs work: As the district plans to provide an in-person option for secondary students, Beilang said he hopes teachers and staff can draw from the experiences of what has worked at the elementary level from the standpoint of following health and safety protocols in buildings. He’d like to see a better rhythm to the remainder of the year to create more stability for students, while also addressing inevitable learning loss due to the pandemic.
“There is a concern on the part of parents, students and ourselves about how much learning loss there has been during this whole process,” he said. “How can we use our summer months to help close some of those learning gaps that are sure to be there?”
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Rockford Public Schools
What worked: Alternating between fully in-person, hybrid and remote learning formats, Rockford has been successful in relying on its teachers, staff, administrators and more to develop a strong remote learning program, while simultaneously providing a safe environment for them to learn in, Rockford Superintendent Michael Shibler said.
“I’m very proud of the work our teachers have done in adapting and adjusting to going into remote modality when necessary,” Shibler said. “They’ve been very creative with their approach to teaching and learning under a very difficult situation.”
What needs work: Like many superintendents, Shibler is focused on getting students back in the classroom without interruption.
“It was frankly a large number of students that were considered a close contact because we used that six-foot standard,” Shibler said. “The vast majority of those students who were quarantined as close contacts did not develop COVID.”
Saline Area Schools
What worked: While the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust Saline Area Schools into becoming more digitally-focused in delivering instruction, Superintendent Scot Graden said he believes teachers and staff now have a better grasp of how to use those tools in the future. Graden pointed to the district’s resilience in an ever-changing environment as one of the positives he’ll take from a challenging first half of the year.
“I think it’s allowed us to prioritize some aspects of instruction that are important,” Graden said. “We really have tried to focus in on the core elements of instruction and we’ve gotten better at that as the year has gone on. It’s really reminded us to focus on the fundamentals.”
What needs work: As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes more widely available and spring marks the end of the flu season, Graden said the district needs to be focused on how to successfully transition back to in-person classes full time. While it’s a format educators, students and parents are familiar with, Graden said there will be some growing pains.
“Even though it’s a transition back to what we ‘know,’ we need to be thoughtful about how we do it,” Graden said. “I’d hate to say that full in-person is going to be harder, but we’re going to have to relearn some things. Students are going to have to relearn routines.”
Waverly Community Schools
What worked: With Waverly in remote learning since the beginning of the school year, Superintendent Kelly Blake said she’s proud of the efforts of teachers and support staff, who have taken on duties beyond the scope of their normal job classification to make virtual learning work.
“I have immense pride for how our educators have switched on a dime,” Blake said. “They have done everything they can to get training and coordinate with colleagues so that they can provide our students with the best possible online experience that they can.”
What needs work: Beyond a desire to move to face-to-face instruction, Blake said the district is working on tweaking its scheduling to make sure students who are struggling get the support they need in their learning. The district has set up “What I Need” time (WIN time), where children can sign up for additional help.
“We’re working to try to get more kids to take advantage of this time,” Blake said. “We’ve found in the fall if it wasn’t a mandated time, they didn’t necessarily show up, so we’re trying to refine some of that.”
West Ottawa Public Schools
What worked: Superintendent Thomas Martin said while West Ottawa has offered in-person instruction throughout the first half of the year, he’s proud of how teachers have adapted to helping students best use technology when they’ve needed to go to remote learning.
“There’s been a lot of frustration expressed by parents who want their kids in school,” Martin said. “I want our kids in school, as well. I am concerned about a loss of learning. Quite frankly, I believe our students are safer in our schools than in the community as a whole.”
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What needs work: The district’s biggest focus continues to be on providing as much in-person instruction as possible, particularly at the lower grade levels, Martin said. He pointed to the latest news of the COVID-19 vaccine being available to K-12 teachers as a positive sign he hopes will allow for more stability in delivering face-to-face instruction.
“I think it’s absolutely essential that we work as hard within our system as we can that we maintain face-to-face instruction in K-5 and all the way through,” Martin said. “Remote learning is good for some kids, but not most kids.”
Zeeland Public Schools
What worked: Zeeland has emphasized “compassion over compliance,” with staff going beyond teaching to care for the well-being of students, Superintendent Calvin DeKuiper said. With the school year placing an enormous focus on relationships, the district has had positive partnerships with parents and caregivers, he said.
“We have also worked collaboratively with numerous community organizations, neighboring schools and the local health department to ensure the health, safety and basic needs of all students are met,” DeKuiper said. “Overall, a greater sense of community developed through this challenging experience.
What needs work: While the first half of the year taught the district that in-person learning is best, DeKuiper said he believes teachers and staff can apply the knowledge and techniques they’ve learned for particular students or unique course offerings with greater ease. He also hopes the district can reduce the anxiety remote learning might cause.
“Moving forward, we see the need for intervention supports increasing and will work to meet the needs with additional support where needed,” he said. “Mental health wellness, awareness and assistance remain a critical focus. We found early success with providing online groups for social growth and development – such as a cooking club – and will continue to develop new and unique ways for students and staff to interact in a healthy and safe way.”
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