Opinion: Pandemic didn’t halt these Detroit students’ education

Chad Okamoto

I woke up on March 13, not knowing  that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had closed schools across the state the night before. Not knowing this would be my last day in a traditional school building for the rest of the school year.

However, I did wake up with hope that education can transform entire families’ lives. I did wake up determined to make my students laugh and enjoy school. I did wake up with optimism that my tireless lesson preparation, accommodations for English language learners and unpaid overtime is a worthy investment into the future of my students who come from marginalized and disadvantaged minority communities.

And above all — like all of my colleagues — I woke up with a determination that even in the midst of a pandemic, education cannot stop. Not when you’re dealing with the most vulnerable population of students in our community. They couldn’t afford to lose one day of learning, much less three months.

Chad Okamoto

I teach social studies at Bridge Academy West, a public charter middle school in Detroit that primarily serves the Middle Eastern community in and around Hamtramck and Detroit. Most of my students are first- and second-generation immigrants, mostly from Yemen and Bangladesh.

Almost all of our students live in poverty, most come from working class families, and 20-30% of our students are English language learners. Every day, my colleagues and I fight for our students to meet and exceed the academic standards put in front of us. 

Our students already start 100 meters behind the average student in the race to achieve grade-level standards, and to have three months of an educational abyss to atrophy was absolutely unacceptable. To us, this tragedy became an opportunity to help our students grow while others were struggling.

On that Friday, and throughout the weekend, the entire staff collaborated and detailed a plan for what e-learning would look like. We handed out Chromebooks to each student and connected with internet providers to extend free Wi-Fi for the school year for any student who needed it. We were able to start full time with five-hour E-learning school days that following Tuesday.

We provided tremendous structure with class times, mandatory attendance and a new grading system. We didn’t just automatically give every student a passing grade; they were expected to complete assignments, and those assignments were graded.

We also made accommodations for extenuating circumstances, special education needs and Ramadan fasting. We were tough on our students and demanded a lot because we want them to not just move on to high school, but to graduate from college and possibly change the trajectory of their family’s socio-economic standing.

As E-learning progressed, we refined and improved our systems. Where we found that students were not attending class, we made personal contact to find out why. We made sure that every student had the technology and tools to succeed. In some cases, our administration even knocked on doors and then stood on the sidewalk to help solve individual family issues.

With E-learning becoming the new normal, we immediately began to compete with Netflix, YouTube and Fortnite for their already short attention spans. I began to utilize my video-editing skills, along with my reputation of being the “young, crazy and hip” teacher to win the students’ attention.

To engage the students, I created a YouTube channel to post fun and sometimes cringe-worthy videos for the students to connect with the school community. We experimented with different techniques, listened to student feedback, and kept refining best practices for e-learning while an uncertain horizon remained.

Ultimately, education must continue, and educators must keep adapting and working for the best interest for the students to grow into successful citizens and scholars. This has been, and will continue to be, our goal.

Chad Okamoto is a middle school social studies teacher at Bridge Academy West, a charter school in Detroit.