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As school districts roll out their new distance learning plans this week, it's clear Michigan's 1.5 million students will be experiencing public education differently depending on where they live.

K-8 students in one Oakland County district will be greeted with a morning "video bell" from their teacher signaling it is time to get to work online, and they will be invited to join two online classroom meetings each school day for prerecorded mini-lessons.

Students in Ludington Area Schools, who live in such remote areas they cannot get an internet connection, will travel weekly to WiFi-wired bus stops or churches where they can download school work on a tablet or grab paper packets of assignments to continue their education back at home.

Students in one rural Michigan district will get to Zoom with school bus drivers who are being repurposed with professional training this week into online educational coaches to assist teachers in their work with elementary students identified for additional academic support.

The differences in educational experiences are endless, and according to education leaders, that is to be expected considering Michigan has 846 school districts across 83 counties, ranging from remote areas to dense cities, all working to develop remote learning plans.

"I think they have to look different. The resources the districts have are different. Connectivity and devices differ quite a bit," said William Miller, executive director of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators. "They will look different, and it's OK. Everybody is going to have a hybrid approach."

Michigan school districts began submitting their distance learning plans to their local intermediate school districts for approval on April 8 after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on April 2 ordered all K-12 school buildings to close for the remainder of the school year, which typically ends in mid-June.

Plans must detail what mode of instruction will be used to reach students, how content will be structured and delivered, how learning will monitored and how students will be assessed during remote learning.

Districts have until April 28 to get approval for their distance learning plans if they want to continue to get their state aid for operations, according to the governor's executive order. Districts that get approval sooner can start using their plans immediately.

Mike Yocum, assistant superintendent for education services at Oakland Schools, that county's intermediate school district, said his team is reviewing plans as they come in. Districts were asked to use a template.

"Many districts had some pretty specialized plans underway already and for them it's getting them into this format," Yocum said. "They are taking it as an opportunity to take what they have been working on and go a little deeper and add pieces to it."

"This has caused them to take a step back and think what they can do to make this better for students and families," Yocum said.

A look at some plans

In the Bloomfield Hills Schools, the distance learning plan suggests schedules for students, lesson lengths and activities for continued learning at home. 

"Students will be given questions to pursue, not just answers to accept. We will give them things to create, not just work to complete," Superintendent Pat Watson said in a letter to parents. "Students will be encouraged to take academic risks while receiving feedback from teachers with the opportunity to try again."

Some districts are reporting their remote learning plans are not changing drastically because they immediately began a robust online program when schools were closed on March 12 and are continuing with those plans.

Others, like Jason Kennedy, superintendent of Ludington Area Schools, with 2,150 students near Lake Michigan, said his district is moving into a more intensive mode.

"From the start, our staff have been providing lessons and activities but nowhere near as intensive as this plan is now," he said. "Each staff member is entering data into plans. Plans will be released every Sunday night with activities centered around each day."

Detroit Public Schools Community District launched its 10-week distance learning plan on Tuesday, calling for students to spend an average of three to four hours a day on schoolwork while the coronavirus pandemic keeps them out of classrooms.

The plan has teachers working Monday through Friday to engage students in lessons via telephone or virtually with online work and provides learning opportunities for students through the end of the school year in June.

The district is spending $3.2 million on printed student packets, which were available to families for distribution beginning Thursday. Student schedules and academic packets will be available for download this week. 

Ralph Bland, founder and president of New Paradigm For Education, a charter school management company with several locations in Detroit, said new elements in his distance learning plan include virtual biweekly meetings between parents and school leaders, increased teacher office hours and weekly welcome videos for students. 

"Grief counseling for students and families and assisting families with mental health and resources are an important part of our plan as well," Bland said.

Grades or no grades

Under the new educational plans, which require districts to identify how they will assess student work, several districts said they would be giving "credit" or "no credit" marks instead of letter grades to students across the board, from K-12.

Other districts said they know they will need to award grades for high school students who want to gain credit and build their grade point averages for college admissions, but they had not yet worked out details on how those grades would be determined.

Robert Shaner, superintendent of Rochester Community Schools, said his district is focused on building personal connections with students during the remote learning period.

At both the elementary and secondary level, attendance will be taken, and students will be encouraged to participate but no letter grades will be given during remote learning, the district said. Students will receive feedback on submitted work, and assignments may be graded on a pass/fail basis. 

At the end of the semester, middle and high students will receive a G (pass/credit) or an H (fail/no credit) based on participation and the work submitted. This will not impact a student’s GPA positively or negatively, Shaner said.

"Kids have suffered a loss no matter what we do with distance leaning; we aren't going to replace that relationship with a teacher face to face," he said. "This is an opportunity to focus on learning rather than grades." 

Steve Matthews, superintendent of Novi Community Schools, acknowledged that grading is especially critical for high school students and their GPAs.

"What is more important than the grade is whether students are learning," Matthews said. "We will have multiple ways for students to demonstrate that they are learning. We will let them redo assignments, takes tests online, submit material through our online portals." 

"The goal is to support students in this unusual time," Matthews said.

New roles for bus drivers

One unique aspect of the distancing learning plan created by Schoolcraft Community Schools near Kalamazoo, which has 1,100 students, will be repurposing school bus drivers like Bobbie Jo McMillan.

McMillian, who started driving school buses in 1989, is being trained this week to act as a coach/mentor to three to four students to assist teachers as they manage full classes of students and classwork.

As the district crafted its plan last week, it considered its 50 or so bus drivers and paraprofessionals and found a place for them to do meaningful work, Superintendent Rusty Stitt said.

"We have a very robust plan. While our teaches will take the lead, our support staff will play an integral part," Stitt said. "Those folks will act as coaches. Kids learn at different rates. How do we honor these kids who are the most reluctant?"

Each staffer will take three to four children, assigned to them by a teacher and identified as needing additional support, and participate in school lessons online with them.

"Not knowing the support we are going to get at home, we are going to try to get a child to read to a bus driver," Stitt said. "It really is a team approach. We are doing professional development next week. We are trying to provide them tools."

McMillan, who said she came back to the district in 2014 after 10 years away, said she loves the students and has really missed seeing all of them since schools shut down in March. She said she is excited about her new role.

"We will be helping teachers mentor the kids who need a little extra help," McMillan said. "We'll stay in contact with them to make sure they know we are here. We will keep communications open with parents. I am really looking forward to it. I think it will be great."

McMillan said she received some training last week on Zoom, and this week teachers will train her and the others on how to help students.

"As long as you don’t stick me with that new Common Core math, I am good," McMillan said. "I think it will be good for everybody."

jchambers@detroitnews.com

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