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Opinion: Educators meet students' needs amid COVID-19

Paula Herbart

Michigan Education Association member Sarah VanderMeer says her heart aches from missing her developmental kindergartners from Brown Elementary School in Byron Center, so she checks in via FaceTime to see how they’re doing, setting up appointments through parents.

VanderMeer taps every tool at her disposal to keep kids connected and engaged during online chats and virtual book read-alouds — including Cinder, her parrot, who likes to sit on her shoulder and chatter, often breaking the ice with less talkative children.

“I think of my students, and I pray for their health and well-being every night,” says VanderMeer. “I didn’t want this, and neither did they.”

Across Michigan, educators from every job classification have acted as emotional and physical first-responders in their communities, helping students adjust to the new normal of social distancing, home isolation and economic shutdown.

Under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s recent executive order ending in-person instruction this school year, schools are continuing to offer remote learning opportunities for students as well as critical support services, like meals.

“I’ve always known educators are superheroes, but what I’ve seen in the last few weeks is nothing short of amazing,” Whitmer told school employees on a recent telephone town hall.

In districts of all sizes, meal programs took root almost immediately after Whitmer ordered school closures in March. Many children rely on schools for two meals per day under typical circumstances, but the need grows with each week the crisis has worsened. 

It’s a team effort to get food to those in need. In the 604-square-mile Alpena Public Schools, the “largest meals on wheels” saw bus drivers, food service workers, para-educators, teachers and administrators all helping to distribute breakfasts and lunches to any household with children under 18. 

In just the first two weeks, Otsego Public Schools provided nearly 30,000 meals at sites across the west Michigan town, with school employees aided by police officers and firefighters, said Carissa Taylor, head cook in her building and co-president of her local union.

Schalm Elementary fourth grade teacher Melissa Adamczyk, along with her daughter Kinley Adamczyk, wave to students and parents as they parade around Clawson, Monday, March 23, 2020.

“We’ve probably spent more hours doing this than we do in a normal school week,” Taylor said. “It’s been a huge blessing.”

Beyond meeting basic needs like food, some of educators’ most important work has been acting as a touchstone for students to feel safe and secure.

From online and phone check-ins to “educators caravans” through neighborhoods to wave at students from a distance, educators have used their passion and creativity to connect with students.  

Nonetheless, there is still grief for both educators and students alike over the loss of in-person school for the rest of this academic year. Seniors are missing important rights of passage like proms and graduation ceremonies. Athletes have been devastated by cancellation of winter postseason playoffs and entire spring seasons, as have performing arts students who’ve prepared all year to show their skills at spring performances. 

Finding ways to be of service has helped the grieving process. Among countless examples of PPE donations, robotics teams in Michigan have found ways to stay involved by donating safety goggles and using 3D printers to make face shields.

One thing remains clear: While we can and must strive to deliver normalcy to our students, nothing about this is “normal.” Nothing we can do right now will fully replace the face-to-face connections and relationships between students and educators.  

But we will do the very best possible in every community to meet the continued learning and emotional needs of students.  

Schalm Elementary teachers parade around the neighborhood, complete with police escort and a fire truck, to say hi to their gleeful students, out of school because of the coronavirus pandemic in Clawson, Michigan, Monday, March 23, 2020.

Every school district is implementing plans — developed in collaboration with front-line educators — to provide learning opportunities in appropriate, equitable and accessible ways for students and families.

Because of the digital divide, we must think in terms of remote learning — not just online learning — because too many students lack access to the internet or connected devices for learning. 

In some places, students without access to technology have been receiving paper packets by mail or pickup. Other districts are partnering with local cable access television or public broadcasting to air educational television programming during the day.

Innovative learning opportunities are being developed constantly by educators, often without adequate resources or professional development.  

That’s one reason why Michigan Teacher of the Year Cara Lougheed — a high school English teacher from Rochester Community Schools — urged everyone to temper expectations for both students and educators during this stressful time.

“Our primary focus should not be about grades,” Lougheed said in a recent interview. “Rather, it is ensuring teachers are connecting with kids, and maintaining the relationships they forged in their classrooms.”

Those relationships are the most valuable tool we have to manage the impact of this crisis on Michigan’s children. As we navigate the coming months, we all — policymakers, parents, educators and students — need to remember the power of those connections and how they’ll help us recover both academically and emotionally when we can safely return to school. 

Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Rory Gamble, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.