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New Normal: Pandemic has lasting impact on education

Greenville High School Algebra teacher Kristen Ritter (left) works with students during a summer school session at Greenville High School.
Christian Booher
Greenville High School Algebra teacher Kristen Ritter (left) works with students during a summer school session at Greenville High School.

Teachers were forced to learn and adapt on the fly last year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, they're taking those lessons learned into the upcoming school year

On March 13, 2020, the world of education was flipped upside down.

At the time, virtual learning was a convenient flash in the pan for students who wished to dual enroll or take on a course through platforms such as Michigan Virtual High School or Apex Learning.

While many schools were transitioning to becoming 1-to-1 with devices and students, little thought was given to transitioning an entire school year to a virtual platform.

And yet, that’s exactly what happened on Friday, March 13.

Following the conclusion of the school week, Governor Gretchen Whitmer ordered schools to be held remotely for the following two weeks.

Eventually, that order was extended to the remainder of the school year.

Michelle Blaczynzski, in her seventh year as assistant superintendent at the time, remembered quickly formulating a plan to make sure students didn’t miss out on valuable learning time.

“When the governor closed schools on March 13 at the end of the day, we had no idea how long it would be,” Blaczynzski said. “Some of us were thinking, ‘Is this two weeks,’ but Greenville Public Schools, and this is the part that I feel really proud about, we began on Monday, March 16, pushing out lessons digitally. So our students did not lose time.”

Resilient learners

Outside of the traditional face-to-face aspect of learning, students had plenty of other needs to be accounted for.

In a normal school day, students have access to lunch and counseling along with the chance to have valuable social interaction. Some students were in areas without a necessary reliable internet connection.

Now, with everyone forced to take classes from their homes, students and teachers were in tough spots.

“Food distribution was key,” Blaczynzski said. “So, meeting the hierarchy of needs. Social, emotional care. We had our bus drivers reaching out to call families. We had our teachers connecting every day with students.”

Nine miles down the road, Belding High School and principal Michael Ostrander were dealing with the same problems. These problems didn’t just go away following the 2020 school year, meaning schools had to use the summer to formulate a plan for the upcoming school year.

“(We) spent a considerable amount of time last summer trying to determine what would be best and how we wanted to arrange our days and keep with all of our mitigation strategies that we needed just to keep our students safe,” Ostrander said.

Students and teachers alike learned to adapt on the fly. Through meeting software such as Zoom and Google Meet, teachers began to lead an entirely new classroom environment.

One area where it could be especially challenging to lead a virtual classroom was at the elementary level. With youth not being as tech-savvy, instructing could be difficult.

Despite this, Lakeview first grade teacher Chelsey Kellums spoke positively about the experience and everything her students were able to get done.

“Being with a younger crew, this is their first time being exposed to that kind of technology,” Kellums said. “And just being able to have that time to walk them through, ‘Oh what happened,’ and ‘It’s loading or something is spinning, what can you do?’ I will say that we are just really building resilient learners.”

With a change in technology came a change in communication. Because schools could not hold in-person parent-teacher conferences, they had to find other ways to get ahold of parents and update them on their student’s progress.

“What we asked our staff to do was over a period of two weeks, contact every parent,” Ostrander said. “Whether it’s by phone, by postcard, by email, but contact every single parent that you can and make sure you have a conversation about their child and how they’re doing and the progress that they’re making and what you’re seeing.”

The future

Now, teachers and students are facing a return to mostly face-to-face instruction as a vaccine becomes available. Despite this, it’s widely considered that the days of fully in-person instruction may be in the rearview.

Both Ostrander and Blaszczynski, now the principal at Greenville High School, say there will be an element of hybrid learning included in the upcoming year.

Ostrander specifically mentioned the possibility of each student having the opportunity to take an online class.— Something that came about as a result of meetings with student groups.

“We believe that is where the world is going,” Ostrander said. “These kids who go to college in the next five-to-seven years are going to have an online classThat’s reality for them. Our kids who are going into the work force are gonna have different online trainings or online development that they need to do. And so if we can support that learning now, I think we are preparing them better for the future that’s ahead of them.”

Blaszczynski said the virtual element acclimates teachers and students who may be under the weather or out of town.

“If someone’s gone on a professional development day, let’s say they have little cold and they’re home but they still want to tune in for the learning, they could still participate from home without having to spread the bug,” Blaszczynski said.

Many believe there’s also the possibility of the online environment making up for missed educational opportunities. For instance, a snow day in the future could simply lead to shifting learning online for the day.

The experience of virtual parent-teacher conferences opened a lot of eyes, including Ostrander’s.

“It opened our eyes, I think, as educators that there are maybe different ways to reach people,” Ostrander said. “Schools have been doing in-person parent-teacher conferences essentially the same way for 50 or 60 years — And why? I think most educators would say, especially at the high school level, the parents who come are usually the ones you don’t need to talk to … There are some general complaints about how parent-teacher conferences work and covid taught us that maybe there’s another way.”

Matt Johnson, a professor in Central Michigan’s education department, was also on the parent side of these virtual conferences.

“That virtual option for parent-teacher conferences was awesome,” Johnson said. “It was great. You didn’t have to go up there. It was just one of those things that was great to be able to do.”

Even at the college level, the teaching landscape is changing. Johnson, who teaches a graduate level course called “Teaching with Technology” said he has begun offering digital alternatives to normal assignments. Instead of enforcing a quota of papers to be written, Johnson has begun to offer other opportunities such as making a podcast or an e-portfolio.

Johnson believes this blended, electronic and face-to-face method of learning is one that is here to stay.

“I think it’s here to stay,” Johnson said. “It remains to be seen and it’ll be contextual, but the convenience that some of these offerings, virtual offerings are really tremendous.”