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Kids struggling to learn from home during pandemic

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Janis King's third-grade daughter refuses to participate in Zoom school meetings or be recorded with a smartphone for school projects.

King's 14-year-old son is on a different sleep schedule than the rest of the family, starting schoolwork after 1 p.m. that requires his mother to sit with him to watch video assignments because he has trouble staying focused due to ADHD.

"At school, he did better. At home, there are so many distractions I have to sit with him. We watch the videos together. I read him chapters and he answers questions," King said. "For my third grader, every day is a fit  She doesn’t like the online stuff. She is a people-person in class."

The King family, from left, Janis, 42, Madelynn, 8, Willow, 11, Sam, 14 and Dave, 44, and Meesha, at their home in Berkley. The family has undertaken many projects while the kids have not been in school during the coronavirus pandemic, such as home improvement projects, gardening, baking and fashion shows for fun. The window decorations were done in the first weeks of the stay at home order.

For some families, remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a struggle loaded with stress: parents are feeling overwhelmed managing the education of multiple children with different learning styles and students used to face-to-face instruction are becoming more disengaged with online work.  

With the last few weeks of school on the horizon in Michigan — most districts end the school year in mid-June — the conclusion of online learning at home cannot come soon enough.

King says it's a struggle every day to get school assignments completed and get her children engaged in online work since K-12 schools were shuttered 11 weeks ago. As stress and frustration built during the initial weeks, King decided not to force her children to work online.

Rather, their days are filled with home improvement projects using a circular saw, baking recipes, impromptu fashion shows and recreating family photos from generations ago. 

"My kids are doing schoolwork, it has just been very challenging on an emotional level," King said. "We are trying to focus more on life skills due to the fact that we never get this time together as a family when we’re all home."

Parents in Michigan were abruptly thrown into homeschooling roles when schools closed down in mid-March. At the same time, many are trying to work full-time jobs from home.

The result: some families have been ditching class.

Several parents confessed to struggling with the demands of online learning, especially those in households with multiple children, those with children with special needs and those where internet access and devices are spread too thin.

At least 300,000 students in Michigan lack internet access or a computer at home while they are shut out of schools during the pandemic, according to a survey by Michigan school officials. That can lead to squabbles at home over devices, parents say, or kids waiting for their turn to do schoolwork.

School leaders in Michigan say they are doing their best to keep students engaged in online learning but struggle to make it more appealing to students to spend hours in front of computers.

Educators say they know some kids are ignoring schoolwork because students in Michigan have been told they will all be promoted and missed school work "won't count."

According to a national poll of 849 teenagers by Common Sense Media done in April, 41% of teenagers say they hadn't attended a single online or virtual class since schools transitioned to online learning. Data on Michigan students was not available.

Some Michigan districts had initially set goals of three to five hours a day of school-related activities online, but most parents report their younger children are working in chunks of time that maybe add up to 30 to 90 minutes a day. For older children, one to two hours is more typical.

Students in West Bloomfield schools were suffering from screen fatigue with the demands of five or so hours of schoolwork at the start of remote learning in March, said West Bloomfield School District Superintendent Gerald Hill.

"Your mind becomes numb after so much screen time," Hill said. "We have to use screen time judiciously."

Madelynn King, 8, puts together a bbq grill at the King home in Berkley, Mich. one of the projects the family tackled while the kids are schooling at home due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Educators have said from the start that students need emotional support first during the pandemic and their health and safety are the first priorities. But student disengagement is a reality in most schools.

According to a new national survey of educators from the Education Week Research Center, 21% of students have been truant during the coronavirus, with higher rates in high school and lower rates in elementary school.

The survey found most teachers do not have daily access with most students, with 37% reporting daily contact, 50% having weekly, 9% reported contact once and 4% never having contact.

Steve Carlson, principal of Sandusky High School in Sanliac County, said he tried to measure how many students are engaged with teachers, how many are submitting work and how many are gaining mastery in new material. That required calls home when texts and emails went unanswered.

"With a lot of families, there is a lot going on right now, and it's stressful. Our phone calls sparked some crucial conversations in households," Carlson said.

Student engagement is measured in a variety of ways, Carlson said, and last month, the rate ranged from 41% to 94%. Less than 10% of students have had no interaction with a teacher.

"We can see these are the ones we are most concerned about," Carlson said. "We are formulating plans to try harder. We may use the U.S. mail to send information."

Carlson said there is a point at which he has to consider some students are not engaged in schoolwork during the K-12 building shutdown.

"At what point will it be just acknowledging this is not a family who is going to interact with us now, and we have to wait until it gets closer to normal?" Carlson said. "We are mindful that we don’t know how this impacts all families. For some, the education of the child is not a top priority. Feeding them is right now."

“We just need to keep learning going," Carlson said. "We will fill in all the gaps when learning returns to normal.”

Learning loss from COVID-19 school closures has been predicted by education researchers who estimate reduced learning gains in both math and reading.

The Collaborative for Student Growth at NWEA, a national nonprofit that assesses learning, issued a report last month that said preliminary COVID slide estimates suggest students will return in fall with roughly 70% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year.

In math, students are likely to show smaller learning gains, returning with less than 50% of the learning gains, and in some grades, nearly a full year behind, the report said.

Tara Mager, principal at Meridian Early College High School in Midland County, said she and her team at the school are always asking how they can support students at home and keep them engaged.

Willow King, 11, sanding the walls at the King home in Berkley, Mich. one of the projects the family tackled while the kids are schooling at home due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"Developing a relationship with kids is critical," Mager said. "We did a family survey. We called families directly. Early on, we showed families we are in this with you. This is stressful. We get it. From there, we can help with the learning."

Mager said her team examines student engagement by looking at data from learning platforms to see who has submitted work and who has not. The district makes calls, emails, texts. Students who are non-responsive get case managers who dive deeper into the challenges.

"We met as a team, look at interventions and what else we need. Then it's boots on the ground from calling to visiting homes," Mager said. 

Mary Ellen Bross has worked for 21 years as a licensed master social worker for Utica Community Schools. Before the pandemic hit, Bross was working with 132 special needs students across multiple high schools who ranged from emotionally impaired to those on the autism spectrum.

Bross said being out of the school building is a particular challenge for children with special needs because they typically associate school work with being at school.

"The stress level for so many has gone up significantly," Bross said. "For these students, school is the place where they go to do work, where they are encouraged and supported. It's that environment that makes the difference for them. At home, they don’t do as much work when they don’t have the staff."

Virtual learning is not for everyone, Bross said. While most students in her district have a computer, many students with special needs are not used to do assignments that way.

"An educator makes a difference. Having a teacher there to assist you makes a difference," Bross said.

The transition to online learning has created a new class of at-risk students, says Rebekah Richards, co-founder of Graduation Alliance, school disengagement experts who work with 60 districts nationally to help re-engage those who can't or won't go to school.

“We are seeing students who are thriving in a traditional environment. When they are removed from teachers, other students, connectivity, when the structure has been removed, they are no longer participating," Richards said. "That is very concerning.”

Richards' company was hired by a school district in New Mexico to reach out to students. Conversations with Michigan districts are underway, she said.

Key to mitigating a coming wave of dropouts is a short-term approach, Richards said, to deploy additional layers of human support for vulnerable populations who are learning remotely.

“There is no silver bullet in this, but there are principles that work, sometimes having new faces works. It the persistent consistent outreach that makes the difference,” Richards said. “That outreach is difficult to sustain without additional resources.”

Michigan education officials have not made decisions yet on whether the new school year this fall will be online, in school buildings or a mix of the two. Some parents say they are looking forward to the end of the school year and for the online education experiment to be over.

Beth Smith, the parent of four daughters in Avondale Schools and a substitute teacher, said when the coronavirus slammed school doors shut in March, she thought she could easily manage the education of four children — ages 5, 7, 9 and 11 — at home.

"I was gung-ho when I got the stay at home order," Smith said. "I said 'I am going to do this.' As the weeks went on, I said this is ridiculous. This is too much. It is not realistic. So we did our own thing and tried to get the work done."

Smith said the challenge in her home is that her daughters have different learning styles. Two are motivated to get their work done and do it with ease. Her fourth-grade daughter requires constant redirection all day.

"It is a lot of juggling and me not getting my own stuff done. It's constantly checking who needs help, whose on what platform, what microphone is not working. Trying to balance all of that," Smith said.

"I am stressed. My daughter ... is stressed," Smith said. "At school, she gets a lot of support. She has someone helping her with math. She has a great learning team at school, and here, it is just mom."

jchambers@detroitnews.com