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Schools get lesson in online learning

ESCANABA — The continuing pandemic has plagued traditional school administrations, trying to put together a safe plan bringing students, teachers, and staff back into the schools, taking cue from Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Safe Schools-Michigan’s 2020-21 Return to School Roadmap.

School administrators are trying to make learning possible anywhere for their students. Attendance can be considered by a school as a child active in learning instead of physically sitting at a desk in a class.

You could easily say every school district in the Upper Peninsula struggled with the same issues transitioning from traditional face-to-face schooling inside buildings, to online schooling from the end of March to June. Some areas did not have the internet easily accessible and not all families have devices at home for students to use.

“When public schools were closed down in March, and we were directed to implement a remote learning plan for all students, we struggled,” said Bark River-Harris (BRH) Superintendent Jason Lockwood. “Like most rural schools, we faced several barriers, such as quality internet service and adequate devices in the homes of our students … we still found the lack of quality internet service to be a real barrier.”

BRH, like other schools in the district, has sent out surveys to families, finding out the possible barriers for the upcoming school year.

“Nearly 20% of our elementary families do not have adequate internet service and 43% of these families do not have the necessary devices to effectively receive online instruction,” said Lockwood.

With poor or nonexistent internet service throughout the U.P., school districts are having to find ways for students to continue their education in the 2020-21 school year and help students not fall behind.

“We’ve taken our previous experience and the data from various recent surveys which has shown that nearly 25% of our K-12 population is seeking online options and we have developed three various online options for our families,” said Lockwood.

BRH has implemented a blended remote learning program for students in kindergarten through sixth grade for students whose parents do not want the child to go to school. A remote learning teacher will work directly with elementary teachers and parents to blend online learning with instruction packets. Elementary parents interested in this option are asked to call 466-9981 and inform either Caz Palmgren, elementary secretary, or Kelly Erdody, elementary principal.

Seventh and eighth grade students are asked to call 466-9981 and speak with Joan Richer, Jan Hood, or Darren Bray, to discuss the options available — full online programming, options through Google Classroom with BRH teachers, or options available through North Menominee Community Schools.

Through BRH’ new online program high school students can earn credits. Administration and parents will meet Aug. 11 to discuss athletic eligibility, earning credits, scheduling, academic standards, and other student handbook matters.

Gladstone Area Public Schools have had online learning for a number of years, according to Superintendent Jay Kulbertis. For those students there wasn’t much of a change, for traditionally enrolled students experienced a huge change when Governor Gretchen Whitmer closed Michigan schools.

“I think the experience taught us all a lot about the extent of connectivity in our communities, the number of available devices at home, and the skill-set of our traditional teachers with the digital format,” said Kulbertis. “As we learned and adapted and adjusted, things went as well as we could expect with the sudden change.”

In Gladstone teachers will be ready to deliver traditional face-to-face instruction, and a blended-hybrid option. Students will be able to access the daily instruction either in real time or through a recorded version.

“We are also excited to offer a fully virtual option for those students and families that want to stay connected with us, but are not comfortable or able to attend in person,” said Kulbertis.

From last school year to the coming school year, Gladstone will have a much rigorous instruction, higher expectations for engagement, and greater accountability for keeping up with coursework than what was generally experienced during the shutdown, according to Kulbertis.

“While we favor face-to-face instruction for a number of solid educational reasons, we understand that will not be happening for at least some of our students for at least some of the year,” Kulbertis said. “So, we will be ready to meet them online and provide a robust digital experience at each grade level.”

Holy Name Catholic School Principal Joe Carlson said students adapted well, considering the circumstances, the end of last school year with the parent and school partnership. Starting the new school year Holy Name will have face-to-face instruction.

“This is what we were made to do,” said Carlson. “We have learned a lot from our mistakes last year as well as our successes and will be much better prepared this coming school year for either situation.”

While learning face-to-face, students will learn how to interact online with their teachers by turning in assignments using a online learning format. Classrooms will also be equipped with camera’s for livestreaming.

“Although we plan on opening with face-to-face instruction we understand that we have some families in situations with compromised health conditions, and other concerns with the virus in general,” said Carlson.

Carlson and his staff will work with families individually to suit student’s needs.

“In the pre-school grades we have also created “pre-school in a bag” packets filled with learning activities, crafts, books and more to support a pre-schooler’s learning at home, should a parent request this,” said Carlson. “I think the important thing to remember is that the parents are and always will be the primary educators of their children. We are here to support them and their child in any way that we can.”

Beyond the traditional brick and mortar schools, Escanaba does have a virtual learning center located off Ludington Street. Success Virtual Learning Centers of Michigan (SVLCM) Executive Director Kristi Teall has noticed an increase in enrollment this summer for the 2020-21 school year.

“We’ve seen an uptick in interest earlier this year,” said Teall. “Typically July is slow … Over 200 families have reached out in July, normally it’s zero.”

Teall understands schools are learning ways to teach students through online programs as they go.

“The coronavirus pandemic is putting schools in a tough spot. We are experienced,” said Teall. “A lot of the traditional schools are working on pulling together online learning, face-to-face, and a blended curriculum together. We’ve been doing this for 10 years, we know what works and what doesn’t.”

Kelly Kurpier is the director in Escanaba. The Escanaba staff went back to work Aug. 3, and the official first day is Aug. 31. There are currently 303 students in the Upper Peninsula supported by centers in Escanaba, Marquette and Menominee.

“The end of last year did not go the way any of us planned. In hindsight there are things that we would have done differently. When we transitioned last year there was little notice and because of that I think we did the best job we could,” said Manistique Superintendent Howard Parmentier. “For this upcoming school year we are planning to start face-to-face with an option for online.”

Manistique Area Schools, like many others, need approval of the plan by the School Board before implementing them.

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