Nealmetria Loper spends much of her day “in” third grade, watching remote lessons over the shoulder of one of her daughters to make sure she’s following along on lessons. The mother of four is also just a shout away if her other daughters run into tech issues or come across directions they don’t quite understand.
“It's been really hard just because it's four children in four different grades, so they're in four different spaces,” she said. “Plus myself because I work. So I'm the fifth person on this Wi-Fi that I can barely afford.”
Loper, who does community engagement work for the Detroit Parent Network, said keeping up with her job and household tasks while overseeing her daughters’ education has been a relentless challenge.
She opted for her children to continue with fully remote learning even after their school offered a hybrid model due to concerns for their health. Loper said that two of her daughters have asthma, and when she visited the school to pick up their materials at the end of last year, she didn’t see the level of precautions that she felt would keep her children safe.
So the house Loper shares with her daughters has been a schoolhouse for the last year, ever since Governor Whitmer ordered all schools closed starting on March 16, 2020. The initial order lasted three weeks, but that was extended as the scope of the pandemic became more clear.
As the state approached a year from the initial closure dates, 83% of school districts already offered or planned to offer some form of in-person learning, according to a statewide survey.
As Dearborn Schools prepared to re-open, Katie Borrello, a first grade teacher at William Ford Elementary, was working through safety protocols in her classroom.
“Everything has to change,” she said, noting that students would no longer hang their coats on hooks or share desks in an effort to maintain social distancing.
Students will take turns washing their hands when they come into the building, but Borrello said a line toward the sink won’t be safe. Instead, Borrello said, “We're going to use a spray bottle and then a pump of soap so that they're scrubbing before they even get to the sink.”
That way, the students won't even have to touch the faucet.
Detroit Achievement Academy, a charter school on the city’s north side, worked through its safety protocols in the summer. Administrators say the school has not had a single case of COVID-19 since it opened for hybrid learning at the start of the school year.
“As soon as [students] came in, we established the expectations and the rules and the reasoning behind why we're doing what we're doing,” said Mazen Youssef, a fourth grade teacher, who said his class quickly adapted to the new rules.
A bigger challenge was figuring out to balance instruction for the two students who began in person in the fall, and the others who opted to continue learning remotely -- or, as the school calls them, the “roomers” and “Zoomers.”
“So the kids that are in the room, I would teach in person and then the Zoomers, they would be working independently and that didn't seem to work,” he said. “It was difficult to assess their learning. It was difficult to hold them accountable for completing the assignments. And then we tried going live every single day. And that was also just very taxing.”
Youssef has worked out a better balance as more students have opted into hybrid learning in subsequent quarters. But engagement has become more of a challenge for both groups of students as the pandemic has worn on. One of his efforts to address the mental health toll of increased isolation on students has been to create spaces for them to socialize online.
“I open up different rooms on Zoom and they would be able to choose: like one room would be watching a movie with your friends or one would be sharing music, one would be playing Roblox, and they get to choose which room they get to go into and just hang out.”
Youssef said he’s approached teaching during the last year with more empathy than ever.