Parents choose Uplift
Nearly 65% of respondents who participated in a Monroe News reader poll have some concern about sending a child back to school in the fall. Article from Monroe News
When her young daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, a Luna Pier resident knew her family would have to make some lifestyle changes.
Toward the beginning of the diagnosis, Casey Gibbons said she could hardly stay on top of her 6-year-old daughter Sophia’s medical care as a parent, so she hardly felt comfortable sending her to school with staff who are trained to teach, not monitor students’ health.
So she enrolled Sophia in virtual school, believing that health comes first – even if that meant sacrificing a traditional K-12 education. Her boys, Kaiden, 12, and Jace, 10 eventually joined the program too.
For years, area parents of children with varying medical conditions have prioritized health over a typical school experience. But the coronavirus pandemic has opened the eyes of families who have not yet experienced the stress of sending children to school and worrying they may not come home healthy.
“Even if I had not homeschooled previously to COVID-19, I would be homeschooling now,” Gibbons told The Monroe News. “I can’t imagine ever going back.”
Health concerns are at the forefront of fears among parents who are worrying about the safety of their children returning to school in the fall – even if districts adhere to social distancing guidelines and other safety measures. Then there’s the concern about children wearing masks.
Nearly 65% of Monroe County parents agreed that they have at least some concern about sending a child back to school in the fall, according to a recent Monroe News reader poll of about 3,000 residents.
The remaining families simply want their children back in school, in part because the alternative – virtual learning – is challenging for many families with multiple children, parents who work or ones who lack internet or computer access.
“The biggest thing is hearing what the parents want, while also being student-focused, student- centered. The needs of Jefferson parents are going to be different than Whiteford parents and Dundee families,” said Supt. Michael Petty of Jefferson Public Schools. “I think there are some parents and families that absolutely do not want their children in school, and I think there are some parents who want their kids to be in school at all costs.”
If COVID-19 has taught residents anything, it’s that the respiratory virus mutates quickly in large groups.
Schools, which often tightly pack students in classrooms, cafeterias and buses, appear counterintuitive to social distancing guidelines as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention – even with the state’s current “Return to School Roadmap.”
Monroe County, which is part of Region 1 with the metro-Detroit area, is classified as being in “Phase 4” of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s phased reopening plan of the state. In Phase 4, students in sixth grade and up would be required to wear a mask throughout the school day, except for lunch or if they medically can’t wear one. Students in kindergarten through fifth grade must wear one when outside or on the bus.
Although the CDC recommends face coverings to slow the spread of COVID-19, some parents worry about the safety of students wearing a mask for up to eight hours per school day or simply disagree with face-coverings as a vehicle for protection.
“I’m not opposed to wearing a mask,” Gibbons said. “But the thought of sending kids to school having to wear them all day, I think I more so would like to advocate” for virtual learning.
Even if students are masked, districts still will have to battle large class sizes to find creative ways to keep students the recommended six-feet apart.
Michigan classrooms rank No. 3 in the country in average class sizes, according to a recent study by Zippa, a career information website. The state, which falls only below California and Utah, accommodates an average class size of 26.6 students. It has the highest elementary class size in the country at an average of 24.2 students.
Many parents question how schools, which can host up to thousands of students at a time, could appropriately keep once tightly-packed students at a distance, especially in a culture which fosters student collaboration and team work.
Even if they were able to study at a distance, other parents worry that students would be sacrificing a traditional student experience and needed socialization.
“As a student, the only problem I have is that there’s no way the students can stay six-feet apart at all times. It’s just not possible,” said Julia Schwemmin, who attends Monroe High School. “It’s also going to be extremely hard on the teachers, as we are no longer allowed to switch classrooms. The hallways at most are six-feet across, so kids would have to be walking with their backs on the wall in order to maintain a six-foot distance.
“Most of what they are trying to do just won’t work, and if it does, it will only be for a little while before people get fed up with it.”
Michigan students got a taste of online learning in the final months of the 2019-20 year, after Whitmer called for the closure of all K-12 school buildings in the state in light of the coronavirus pandemic. The last time students were in a traditional classroom setting was March.
While districts had short windows to create substantial virtual learning plans, many students still thrived in an online setting. With the summer to prepare true virtual curricula, it’s likely the process would run much smoother in the 2020-21 academic year, tempting some parents to turn to online education. “I have had dozens of inquiries from parents about the school (my children attend),” Gibbons said. “In my area alone, I think more than half are switching to virtual because there’s so much uncertainty with this illness.”
Gibbons’ children attend Uplift Michigan Academy, a solely online, tuition-free public education program based in the state, which offers a fairly flexible schedule – another advantage to remote learning programs, she said.
Should her daughter have a low-blood sugar day, or son have an asthma attack, she said the program allows enough flexibility to take a day off from school and make it up at another time. Besides the statewide uncertainty about COVID-19, her children’s education was not interrupted by the pandemic; in fact, they completed the academic year a month early.
Success Virtual Learning Centers (SVLC) of Michigan, which has a campus in Monroe County and offers another flexible, remote learning program, also has predicted an enrollment surge this fall.
Since the onset of the COVID-19, SVLC’s throughout the state have received an influx of inquiries about its academic program, according to Kristi Teall, executive director.
Even still, some families remain apprehensive about virtual learning, as it sometimes calls for more academic support from parents who might work long hours, have other children to look after or simply don’t have the skills needed to help their kids learn a new concept. Without school, parents of young children would need babysitters or daycare services, which also are uncertain amid COVID-19.
“I don’t have patience. I have three kids and one requires around-the-clock medical care,” Gibbons said. “If I can do it, anyone can.”
The county’s public school districts are required by the Michigan Department of Education to prepare a robust virtual learning program, particularly in the event that the state sees another surge in COVID-19 cases in the fall to prompt another shut down.
Some educators, though, hope to offer an option for virtual curriculum for students, even if it’s not mandated by the state.
“I firmly believe for all of us to really return to school and be effective we need to have multiple choices,” Petty said. “My dream would be to offer some kind of in-person, socially-distanced format, as well as offering a K-12 virtual option for the schools as well...
“The clear thing is to have options, not an option.”
In mid-August districts are required to have multiple learning options approved by their respective education boards and then by the Monroe County Intermediate School District before they’re submitted to the state. In most cases, preliminary proposals include a modified in-person plan, hybrid method and full virtual learning models.
Some districts, such as Airport Community Schools and Monroe Public Schools, already have alternative education programs which run virtually. In those cases, districts are expected to enhance those programs to make them more accessible to traditional K-12 students, especially at the elementary level. For other districts, COVID-19 prompted the district’s first attempt at online school.
Through July, area administrators are expected to rely heavily on public commentary to learn what parents wish to see for the 2020-21 school year – and hopefully ease some concerns.
Many schools already have issued surveys to its families asking for feedback as they develop strategies for the pending academic year. Links to most of those questionnaires are available online at district websites, Facebook pages or by calling respective administration buildings.
“The best way to educate most children is in the classroom with a highly-qualified certified teacher and the appropriate support behind them,” Petty said. “We’ve got to try the best we can to keep these children safe.”