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Some parents face prospect of more online-only school with dread

J. Kelly Brito

Some school districts have already announced they'll be offering remote instruction only in the fall, over concerns it is not safe for teachers, staff, students or their families to have in-person instruction, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The first district to make the announcement was Lansing Public Schools.  

LPS parent Steve Purchase says he understands why that decision was made, even though this spring's experience with online only instruction showed him it's not a great option for most kids, including his second grade son.

"It's going to be tough," says Purchase, whose son is enrolled in a special Chinese language program at the district.  "I hate that he’s going to be missing out on that, and the socialization aspect.  He’s been a super trooper during quarantine and lockdown but I know he misses his friends. But I can appreciate that it’s just not wise to bring them all back in the fall at this point yet."

Purchase says he figures the district made the best decision it could, given the unknowns of a dangerous virus. He's hopeful that the instruction in the fall will be better.

"This spring, it was like, 'here are learning materials , do these and check in with your teacher once a week,'" says Purchase.  "I think this fall it will be much more structured, where your teacher is actually teaching you throughout the week, just virtually.  So it looks like they’ve flipped the script."

But many parents are approaching yet another experience with online school with deep worry.

Tera Qualls says she and her husband both work full time from home. 

She says it was chaos in her home when Grand Rapids Public Schools switched to online instruction in the spring.  The district will be online only in the fall as well.

"My nine year old hates it," says Qualls. "He's just completely emotional the whole time. He just doesn't want to do it. He's used to being  interactive with his friends, he's used to having his schedule every day, and it's just completely changed up his world."

Because both she and her husband work full time during the day, Qualls says it was extremely difficult to offer her son the kind of time and help he needed in the spring.  She says she's not the only parent in her social circle who feels like they're going crazy.

"Our mental health has just deteriorated for so long. We have to figure out what our new normal is and figure out how to control our own chaos in the house," she says.

Qualls says she's considering joining a small school "pod," with other parents, where a limited number of kids would gather to do their work together. That way he would get some of the social interaction he needs.

She's hoping she can do that without disenrolling her son from the district. If her son is not counted as enrolled at GRPS, the district will not get the per pupil funding for him.  

Other parents say they may opt out of online-learning through their districts altogether, and hire tutors, college students majoring in education, or teachers to conduct the classes for their pod.

Officials at Lansing Public Schools are planning to have teachers in the classroom, taping their lessons, which students will view from home.  They say that will make the learning experience for students better in the fall.

Ann Arbor Public Schools is also offering only remote learning for students in the fall. Spokesman Andrew Cluley says it should be a better experience this time around for both teachers and students. 

He says teacher learning networks have been focused since March on developing online learning techniques.

Cluley adds the district has taken pains to make sure teachers are proficient in the technology they'll be using. Teachers received a one week boot camp in Schoology, the remote teaching platform the district is relying on for fall, says Cluley.  

Other districts say they are doing similar things to make sure the online learning experience is much better than it was in the spring.

But that is not going to be enough support for many parents, especially those who must go to work outside the home, and can't monitor their children's work, as well as parents of children with learning disabilities.

So it's going to be a continuation of a hard, hard year for many families in the state.

Correction:  An earlier version of this story said Ann Arbor Public Schools was planning so-called "synchronous" learning, with teachers in their classrooms, and students viewing the lessons from home.  That style of remote learning is planned by Lansing Public Schools, but not Ann Arbor Public Schools.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Radio. She began her career at Michigan Radio as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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