It was not the spring semester local school leaders wanted. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down all Michigan schools on March 13, and students finished up the year by working online and through paper packets.
However, both Lowell Area Schools Superintendent Greg Pratt and St. Patrick School Principal Scott Czarnopys say they are proud of the way teachers, parents and students stepped up to make the best of a bad situation. Both hope to have some return to normalcy in the fall but know that may be dependent on factors outside their control.
Lowell Area Schools: Helping Students Learn Where They Are
With a total enrollment of approximately 3,800 students, Lowell Area Schools had the challenge of adapting its spring learning program to meet the needs of students with varying levels of access to technology. The school district passed out more than 400 Chromebooks to students who needed a computer, and a partnership with Kent District Library will make wireless hot spots available to remote students without internet access going forward.
“I thought it was a huge success to get technology in the hands of students who needed it,” Pratt says.
For most LAS students, the spring semester focused on online learning activities. Teachers used a variety of methods to provide instruction, from pre-recorded lessons to one-on-one videoconferencing to classroom chats. Pratt anticipates even when school returns to a normal schedule, some teachers may decide to incorporate these learning strategies into their regular curriculum. For example, pre-recorded video lessons appeared to be popular and might continue to be a good way for students to review material at home.
There was a learning curve when it came to distance education, and Pratt says everyone got better at it as the semester progressed. Overall, more than 90% of students were engaged in learning activities on a regular basis.
“It was a huge endeavor, but I think we were successful,” the superintendent says.
St. Patrick School: Online Learning and Packet Pick-Ups
Located northwest of Lowell, St. Patrick School is the only private school falling within the boundaries of Lowell Area Schools. With total enrollment of approximately 235 students ranging from preschool to 8th grade, it used a combination of online learning and paper packets to continue its educational programming during the spring semester.
“We’re a 3-year old to a 14-year old school,” Czarnopys says, noting the range of ages enrolled. Students in grades 4-8 moved to an online curriculum while parents of younger students returned assignments and picked up weekly paper packets each Sunday from tables outside the school entrance.
Depending on the teacher, older students had daily Google Meet lessons while younger students met weekly on Zoom with their teacher and classmates. Weekly Spanish and other special classes were available as well although participation was voluntary and not required.
“The general consensus from the community was that we were able to flip the script and not miss a beat timewise,” Czarnopys says. When classes were cancelled on Friday, March 13, teachers and staff worked over the weekend to have a distance education curriculum ready for parents to pick up on Monday and start using on Tuesday.
However, Czarnopys says feedback on distance learning has been mixed, and a recent survey of parents shows an almost unanimous desire to return to the classroom in the fall.
Planning for the Fall
Educators say the fall semester is still a question mark.
“The intention is to get everyone back in the building with reasonable safety precautions in place,” Czarnopys says. However, that could depend on what, if any, mandates the state places on schools in the months ahead. While Governor Gretchen Whitmer has said in-person learning will resume this fall, details about state expectations for schools won’t be released until at least June 30.
Pratt says the situation is fluid, and it could be mid to late-July before parents know exactly what to expect during the upcoming school year. With state revenues in a sharp decline because of the pandemic, funding for public schools could be slashed which could impact services. “It’s very concerning,” Pratt says. “It will be hard to provide the same level of support [with reduced funding].”
At St. Patrick School, tuition payments cover teacher salaries which means enrollment, not state funding, is the crucial factor here. While there has been some talk in the media and among educators about moving to a hybrid system in the fall, Czarnopys says he would have a hard time asking his teachers to both teach in the classroom and create a supplemental at-home learning curriculum.
Still, both Pratt and Czarnopys understand they may be faced with less than ideal circumstances in the fall. For now, like the rest of us, they wait to see what state mandates will dictate for the 2020-2021 school year