At-home schooling challenges Michigan students, parents: ‘It’s not as easy’

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Pleasant Ridge — Lisa Rajt knew a schedule would be critical to keeping her two children on task with school work, physical activity and leisure time — while maintaining her sanity as she tries to work from home during the statewide K-12 shutdown.

So Rajt posted an hour-by-hour schedule on the family's dining room wall with times for wake-up, meals, academics, non-screen play, chores and recess for her children, Abby Campbell, 10, and Ben Campbell, 12. A big red arrow slides up and down the chart to remind the kids where they should be.

"My ultimate goal for this time is to just to be very well-rounded," Rajt said. "So every day, they have academic work, they have to do chores. I want them outside, doing performing arts. My daughter plays viola. My son is in choir. He can sing."

Ben Campbell,12 works on a locomotive whistle "Passion project" which is listed on the school schedule as 'Research anything you are interested in and prepare a verbal, written presentation for dinner that night.'

The first day of the shutdown last week went better than expected, said Rajt, who like thousands of Michigan parents is home with her school-age children for a second week after all K-12 schools were shuttered due to the coronavirus and more than 1.5 million children were sent home.

"They were a lot more cooperative than I thought they would be," said Rajt, who works at Blue Cross Blue Shield. "They were calm, really adhered to it well. I did four conference calls. It went smoothly."

With nearly 53 million of America’s 57 million K-12 students at home because of school closures, according to the American Federation of Teachers, parents are still settling into the new reality of juggling jobs  with the added stress of continuing lessons at home.

When Michigan schools will reopen remains uncertain. Although Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered schools to be closed only through April 5, CDC guidelines for schools say available modeling data indicate that early, short-to-medium closures will not impact the curve of COVID-19.

According to guidance from Michigan education officials, only districts that can deliver education to all students, including English language learners and those with disabilities and federal education plans, should move forward with online learning. That includes ensuring that all students have internet access and a home device.

“Only those districts and schools that can ensure that all students have equitable access to quality learning opportunities should pursue a full transition to online learning,” the memo states.

Adding to the uncertainty for educators and parents, the department issued another memo Friday stating that online learning done at home will not be counted as instructional time. Whitmer said she was "dismayed" by the decision, which got mixed reviews from superintendents and other education stakeholders.

The governor also said the MDE memo does not mean that school work done during the mandatory school closure won’t "count" toward grades, credits, or graduation.

Whitmer added that she "will be working in the coming days to ensure our seniors graduate and that no child is held back" as a result of the COVID-19 school closures. 

During the shutdown, school districts have big variations in what they are asking of students and parents, and in their ability to deliver educational services remotely. Some, like West Bloomfield Public Schools, are taking daily attendance online, while others like Whitefish Township Public Schools in the Upper Peninsula, are not offering instruction at all due to a lack of internet access in remote areas of the state.

Major differences can also be found depending on a child's grade level. High school and some middle school children may already be connected online to their teachers and school through Google Classroom and Google Docs. 

Abby Campbell, 10 stands on the kitchen table bench to look over the schedule for the school day as Lisa Rajt and husband Mark Campbell home schooling their children Ben Campbell, 12 and Abby Campbell, 10 in Pleasant Ridge.

Elementary students typically don't have online accounts for all subjects but might be able to do some work via a computer, if they have one.

Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, said districts vary in their ability to deliver education remotely, but the goal is to help keep students engaged during the shutdown. 

"They are putting together educational activities that are appropriate for all students. It’s to keep students active and engaged until school is back in session," Wigent said. "Each school district in Michigan is definitely in a unique situation, and every district is doing what they can to continue to provide some type of educational opportunity as this very unique situation moves forward.”

In the Burt Township School District, on the shores of Lake Superior, superintendent Greg Nyen says only half of his students have reliable internet available at home, but they all have their own Chromebook.

"Online learning would only be an option if there were no issues with accessibility to the curriculum," he said. "Unfortunately, special education services cannot be delivered over the internet. This accessibility is a major barrier. "

Even if all of his students had devices and internet access, the district's special education students would not receive the support and services to which they are entitled, Nyen said.  

"We can create online learning opportunities for our students but the instructional value is nowhere near what it is in the classroom," he said. "If we attempt to count this time as meaningful instructional time, we are discriminating against our students with disabilities."

Nathan Bills and his wife have seven children, five of whom are enrolled in the Utica Community Schools.

Some of his children came home with packets of homework for the next week of school. His younger children have worksheets in math and spelling, while his older daughters have AP classes in high school. All five have to share two laptops, he said.

"Just sending home things for them, it's not as easy. A lot of times they have questions, and they are missing out on that interaction," Bills said of his high school-age children.

The school district is doing its best, he said, and his wife is home coordinating most of the schoolwork.

"What we are engaged in is uncharted waters," Bills said. "We are trying to figure this out like the rest of the people. We have children at elementary, junior and high school. We are trying to help each one of them to make sure they are not overwhelmed with what they were sent home with.

"What is really going to help is parents, teachers, administrators working together and being patient and taking it one week at a time."

On Wednesday, Detroit's public schools began providing take-home food and study materials for families to pick up during the district's mandatory closure.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District, the state's largest with 50,000 students, is providing printed learning packets for grades K-8 at 58 school locations for the next three weeks. The district also has a team delivering supplies to families with parents and students who are ill. 

Until schools reopen, students in grades 8-12 will have access to Khan Academy, a site with free online lessons, to prepare for the PSAT/SAT.

Lessons will be available through Clever, a mobile application. PSAT/SAT workbooks will also be available at the 58 sites. In addition, K-8 students will have access to reading materials through myON. iReady will be available for grades K-8 reading and math lessons.

Some districts are still working on getting out the word to parents on how to move forward with their child's education during the shutdown.

Detroit parent Kenyatta Carraker says her son's charter school has declared last week "spring break," and she is still waiting for school officials to provide her information on how online education will work in coming weeks.

Carraker says she has one computer at home, but it is her work computer and she will need to find another one for her son, who is in the third grade at Detroit Edison Public School Academy, to do his schoolwork at home. 

"We are going to see how this works. I am waiting for someone to reach out to me," she said. "I have emailed the principal, his teacher and the superintendent."

Carraker said she is concerned about the state's third grade reading law, which mandates that any student who cannot pass the statewide assessment be flagged for retention, and how the school shutdown could result in learning loss at a critical time for him and thousands of other children.

"I think they should delay the law a year. This is critical," she said. "This is the part where it's crunch time this time of year. There is going to be a huge gap of learning time." 

Ralph C. Bland, superintendent of Detroit Edison Public School Academy, said every teacher in the school reached out each parent via phone last week and then documented the communication in a log. 

Educators have created videos to introduce lessons, Google Classroom activities have been scheduled and technology and hot spots were given to parents last week, Bland said.

Most parents agree the home school schedule is a day-to-day experience that requires constant adjustments. Rajt said on the second day of "mom school," the kids had more "rebellious" behavior and adjustments to the schedule were needed.

Wake-up time was moved to later in the morning, lunch was moved earlier due to hunger complaints, and Rajt added a time for "passion projects," which are topics her kids love, like train whistles and ferrets, that aren't covered in school.

Ben Campbell, 12 looks over a map of railways in Michigan while working on his locomotive whistle "Passion project" which states: Research anything you are interested in and prepare a verbal, written presentation for dinner that night.  Lisa Rajt and husband Mark Campbell home schooling their children Ben Campbell, 12 and Abby Campbell, 10 in Pleasant Ridge.

Ben said he spent some time watching train videos on his computer, one of his passion projects. The 12-year-old pulled out a map showing train routes across Michigan.

"We have that schedule, and we are on lunch and screen time now," Ben said. "Then I pretended Abby and I were both ferrets upstairs. And I did science and watched the news."

Abby, a fifth grader in Ferndale Schools, said the home school schedule is more fun than being in real school. 

“I think it's really cool,” Abby said. "I like that we get free play, we get to play with our hamsters and there is culinary arts. I made smoothies yesterday and fettuccine Alfredo. I made brownies.”