Michigan Educators Serve Communities Through Crisis

Reaching and teaching amid coronavirus school closures

By Brenda Ortega
MEA Voice Editor

Sarah VanderMeer

MEA member Sarah VanderMeer says her heart aches with missing her developmental kindergarteners from Brown Elementary School in Byron Center, so she checks in via FaceTime to see how they’re doing, setting up appointments through parents.

Recently she spent half an hour with one of her “sweeties,” who showed her his fort, Pokemón, and all of the Christmas presents he received – “so fun and heartwarming!” the 30-year teaching veteran said.

With a gentle demeanor and infectious giggle, VanderMeer taps every tool at her disposal to keep kids connected and engaged during FaceTime chats and virtual book read-alouds – including Cinder, her African Gray Timneh parrot, who likes to sit on her shoulder and chatter, often breaking the ice with less talkative children.

“I think of my students who have come so far and are just beginning to blossom, my kids who overcame shyness to become more confident and make friends. I pray for their health and well-being every night. I didn’t want this, and neither did they.”

‘Educators Are Superheros’

Across Michigan, educators from every job classification have acted as emotional and physical first responders in their communities, bridging the divide between the everyday life of before and the new normal of social distancing, home isolation, and economic shutdown in the Covid-19 era.

That work was touted by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer during a teletown hall with union members and leaders on Thursday afternoon, which happened just a few hours after she signed an executive order shutting down in-person pre-K-12 education for the rest of the school year.

Under the executive order, school districts will continue to offer food delivery and remote learning opportunities for students, and all employees will continue to be paid, retain health care, and earn retirement service.

“I’ve always known educators are superheroes, but what I’ve seen in the last few weeks is nothing short of amazing,” Whitmer told members of MEA, AFT Michigan, and AFSCME who joined the live call with the governor.

MEA President Paula Herbart agreed during a virtual Education Town Hall streamed live on Facebook last week that the most important work of educators in these early days of the health crisis in Michigan has been acting as “a touchstone for students to feel safe and secure.”


Ensuring students stay well fed

In school districts of all sizes, meal programs took root almost immediately after Whitmer ordered schools in the state to close beginning March 16, initially for a three-week period and now extended through June in the hope of mitigating the spread of a deadly new virus.

Alpena Public Schools

Bus drivers, food service workers, paraeducators, teachers, and administrators joined the effort to distribute breakfasts and lunches to any household with children under 18 in the 604-square-mile Alpena Public Schools – featured in NEA Today and dubbed “the largest meals on wheels.”

Many children rely on schools for two meals per day under typical circumstances, but now the program’s reach has grown each week as the public health crisis worsened in Michigan and Whitmer ordered businesses to close and non-essential workers to stay home and stay safe.

“The need is growing, and word is getting out that this is a service we’re offering to anybody,” said bus driver Annette Henski, vice-president of her local transportation unit.

Otsego Public Schools

Food service workers in Otsego Public Schools have also seen an increase in demand for meal packages they’re assembling, which contain a mix of fruits, non-perishable dry items such as cereal and breakfast bars, juice, and microwaveable foods including chicken patties and waffles.

In just two weeks, nearly 30,000 meals were handed out at sites across the west Michigan town, with school employees aided by police officers and firefighters who helped do some heavy lifting, said Carissa Taylor, head cook in her building and co-president of her local union.

“We’ve probably spent more hours doing this than we do in a normal school week,” Taylor said. “It’s been a huge blessing.”

In East Lansing, an increasing number of meals are going to families at sites across the city without questions of financial need or school of choice, said union president Tim Akers. Several dozen families who can’t get to a pickup site receive regular home delivery by school employees.

East Lansing Public Schools

“I had one student say to me, ‘You know, Akers, I’m kind of embarrassed to have you see me here,’” the local president said. “I said, ‘Don’t you dare. For four years I was on welfare and free and reduced lunch when I was a kid because my dad couldn’t work. Someday when you get a chance, you give back.’”


Creativity and connections

At a morning press conference announcing the “difficult choice” to keep school buildings closed – aired lived on local television and streamed on Facebook – Whitmer praised the creativity she’s seen school employees demonstrate to stay connected with students so far.

Examples abound of educators reaching out. In Grand Rapids, staff members let students know in video, “We love you! We are a text, email, phone call or 6 ft. away.”

In Pellston Public Schools at the northern tip of lower Michigan, educators shared photos of themselves and messages to students, and those images were set in video to a touching song written by the high school principal.

Grand Rapids Public Schools

In a video from educators in Marlette Community Schools, in the center of the Thumb, a loving message is slowly revealed as each educator shares a word or phrase written and decorated on a poster board held up to the camera – all set to the charming back-to-school song, “We’re Going to be Friends,” by The White Stripes.

Educators drove in caravans through neighborhoods to wave – from a distance – at students in the Flint area; in Grand Ledge; and in Monroe.

MEA member Jack Phillipson, a choir teacher at Northview High School in Grand Rapids, made his own acapella group in a video he submitted to a student-run Instagram page created to bring people together during home isolation.

Phillipson said he was inspired to participate when he saw lots of students putting themselves out there during a singing challenge. In his post, several videos come together of him singing melody and harmony on “Lean on Me” while hugging his cat, Moxie.

“The seniors who put together the (@nvcoronacation) page were able to bring so much joy to all of us so quickly,” Phillipson said. “Seeing so many choir members submit videos made me miss everyone even more!”


Coping and caring through cancellations

Athletes have been devastated by the cancellation of winter post-season playoffs and entire spring seasons. Seniors are grieving canceled proms and graduation ceremonies. Music teachers and their students are navigating the loss of year-end culminating performances and festivals.

Western School District

Band members from Jackson County’s Western High School were scheduled to leave on a trip to New York City days after schools first closed, said Director Paul Bickel, who is an MEA member along with his wife, Bethany Bickel, who directs middle school choirs in the district.

On the morning of Saturday, March 21, Bickel expected to be leading his musicians in a national festival in the Big Apple instead of sitting in his daughter’s bedroom playing “restaurant” with his two little ones (as fun as that is).

As consolation, Bickel took to his bands’ Facebook page to post notes from an “alternate reality” in which his kids took the trip, enjoyed the sights, and earned the program’s third consecutive gold rating. A student joined in by sharing a Photoshopped picture of the band in Times Square.

“It’s an acknowledgment that the kids are feeling sad, and hopefully it’s a bit uplifting for their director to say ‘We believe in you; you’re great, this is not your fault, and you would have made us proud,’” he said.

Robotics teams in Michigan also lost their spring competition season this year. Coaches have found ways to stay involved by donating safety goggles, 3-D printing face shields, and even involving students in becoming virtual pen pals with isolated seniors through loaned tablets. MEA member Lisa Weise – the 2004 Michigan Science Teacher of the Year and a 25-year educator at Holt Public Schools – helped to spark a grassroots effort among 600 robotics teams across the state. Read the story.

“Everyone I’ve talked to has said, ‘Yes, certainly we’ll help. We’ve got it.’ People want to help.”

In Rochester and Avondale, local MEA units representing both teachers and support staff took a more low-tech approach to staying connected – offering members postage-paid postcards to write and snail-mail personal notes to students.

The response to the offer was astounding. More than 16,000 cards have been distributed in the two districts.

Mastermind Liz Schroeck, vice president of the Rochester Education Association, began writing notes to her third-grade students soon after schools first closed – as she does every summer. The youngsters were delighted, and some wrote her back.

“There’s something about handwritten cards that provides a strong feeling of connection,” she said.

A similar old-school method was employed by MEA member Rachal Gustafson in the central Upper Peninsula, where some students do not have home access to the internet and many who can access the web do not have fast enough service to stream video.

A 23-year special education teacher in Rapid River Schools and Michigan’s current Region 1 Teacher of the Year, Gustafson used handmade stationary she received as a gift from a student to send personal notes to her kids.

“I know other teachers in our district have made phone calls and sent things home to let students know we didn’t forget about them,” Gustafson said. “They really are on our minds all the time.”


Commitment to equity for remote learning

Rapid River Public Schools

For now through the end of this school year, under Whitmer’s latest executive order, every school district must develop a plan to provide remote learning opportunities to students, and those plans must be appropriate, equitable, and accessible for students and families.

n rural and isolated regions of the state, the disparity between technology haves and have-nots complicates the task of providing remote learning options, Gustafson said.

“Up until about two months ago, I couldn’t even stream things at my house,” Gustafson said. “The internet was just for email and looking things up. I don’t use it as a resource at my school, and we haven’t been trained in how to do it, so that’s a learning curve for everyone also.”

During the first three weeks of schools being shut down, teachers in her district offered parents and students a mix of online resources for exploration and paper packets of activities to keep working and learning.

However, another aspect of the equity issue involves special education students who receive accommodations and interventions at school based on legal documents known as 504s and IEPs (Individualized Education Plans). Federal law requires that students with special needs must receive a free and appropriate education wherever schools are operating.

While U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is reportedly weighing the idea of seeking Congressional waivers from some parts of the federal law governing special education, educators are finding some creative methods to sustain their students. The Whitmer order tells districts to be prepared to provide compensatory services once schools reopen on a case-by-case basis.

In Allegan, special education parapro Nicole Dutton has been working with lead teacher Becky Gunderson to put together directions for parents with internet access to help their students continue using online skills games. Dutton has also been making paper copies of activities and mailing those out.

“The parents have our email, and our students connect with us all the time through that,” said Dutton, who is vice president of her local union. “We’re all missing our routine and we’re missing the interaction with each other a lot.”

Some parents of students can be directed by phone about how to assist their students with paperwork or online lessons, Gustafson said, but others will not be able to replicate the one-on-one services that students with low cognitive function or severe motor deficits would receive at school.

“I think the world has become aware of how important we are as educators to be standing in front of kids and to be present with them in a classroom,” Gustafson said. “We are sometimes the only positive people some kiddos have in their life. Us saying ‘good morning’ and ‘I’m glad you’re here’ make getting through the day bearable for some. I lose sleep over those kids and what their days look like now.”

Jessyca Mathews

Gustafson has been comparing notes on equity issues with her Region 5 Teacher of the Year colleague – MEA member Jessyca Mathews of Flint’s Carman Ainsworth Community Schools. Mathews took to social media on Friday, March 13, the morning after Whitmer first announced school closures, with a prediction:

“This epidemic is going to expose the major issues of funding to schools that many have continuously ignored for years.”

Since then Mathews has focused much of her time with students on mental health checks, which she deemed most important in the first days of the shutdown. “For some kids, school is their place of refuge,” she said. “Technology can’t fix that loss of human contact.”

Every year she puts emphasis on building relationships with her juniors and seniors – first by asking them how they want to be greeted each day, she said. For many it’s a secret handshake, and for others a hug, while some prefer to receive a sticky note with an inspirational quote of the day (which they save in class notebooks).

“For some of them a simple ‘Good morning’ is enough, because no one else is saying that to them,” she said. “I think of all the things these kids request of me that we now can’t do, and it makes me incredibly sad.”

After Thursday’s announcement that school buildings would remain closed, Mathews posted a desolate black-and-white photograph of her classroom, taken the last time she was there following the first shutdown announcement, along with a message that is both a lament and love letter to her students.

Although she agrees with Whitmer’s decision, Mathews knows that some of her students will not be able to participate in online schooling from home. Either they don’t have internet access, or they lack devices of their own beyond a phone.

“The divide of technology is humongous in our state, and it’s always been there. It’s not new—it’s just being exposed now.”

During Thursday’s teletown hall, Whitmer acknowledged the “disparate treatment of schools historically” in answer to a question from a Flint MEA member who wanted to know how to assure her students they wouldn’t be left behind during this time of crisis.

“It’s why each time I’ve written a budget as governor I’ve taken efforts to write it so it’s equitable,” she said, “so it takes into account all of the research we’ve done into ensuring that kids in poverty and kids in stress have got additional wraparound supports, so we can truly try to level the playing field through education.”


Adopting new technology in a crisis

In recent weeks, some districts scrambled to address students’ need for technology by signing out devices normally stored on carts at school. Across the country, schools (or nonprofits) in some large cities have tried to purchase devices for students to take home – resulting in a shortage of Chromebooks and iPads.

Whitmer’s executive order specifies that every district’s plan will be different and will reflect what’s best and feasible for their community. A plan can include learning by any number of modes of instruction delivery, including a hybrid approach.

Administrators in school districts across the state have been busy conducting technology surveys of families to see the technology divide within their boundaries and determine if loaned devices and free internet offers will allow more students to participate in online learning.

NEA has created this guide for implementing digital learning with equity in mind.

Many teachers already blend their in-person instruction with online platforms such as Google Classroom and Schoology, especially in districts with 1:1 technology programs that ensure every student receives a device suitable for learning. In those areas, educators began planning for remote instruction from day one – March 13 – after Whitmer’s first announcement.

In some places, students without access have been receiving paper packets by mail or pickup, as in Benton Harbor, where pickup times for reading materials and study packets are staggered by grade level. In Kalamazoo Public Schools, both paper packets and a virtual Learning Hub have been created to provide options for all.

Other districts are looking at getting around the technology divide by partnering with local cable access television or public broadcasting to air educational television programming during the day – such as this initiative at WKAR.

“Plans are going to be different locally, and they’re going to need to reflect what’s best for the community, meeting the challenges that are unique to some districts and taking advantage of the resources that are available,” Whitmer told union members in Thursday’s teletown hall.

In Haslett, second-grade teacher Suzie Zuke uses an online portfolio, Seesaw, in addition to daily emails to communicate with parents. But the Covid-19 crisis has spurred her to learn a new teleconferencing technology, which she tried out with students who opted to join in.

“I went from not even knowing what Zoom was to now saying this is pretty easy to use and manageable and it’s a great way to see my students face-to-face,” she said.

Experts offer these five ways to ensure the privacy and security of students and adults using the Zoom platform.

Beyond technology, Zuke is in frequent contact with parents to encourage them to do one thing most importantly: encourage their students to read, read, read. Of her class of 27 second graders, 11 have active Individual Reading Plans designed to bring them up to grade level.

“I worry, because even though all of these students are working hard, and their parents are supportive, they’re not getting the additional intensive support from classroom professionals they need to grow them the way that needs to happen.”

Elsewhere, physical education teachers – such as MEA member Jordan Wallin of Northview – are posting YouTube videos of exercises and games that students can do to keep moving with their families. In Anchor Bay, middle school Life Skills teacher Kristan Brees created a YouTube channel to post entertaining cooking videos.

Kristan Brees

“I had no idea how to even upload until one of my girlfriends showed me how,” Brees said. “Now I’m pretty good at it, but I’m still not the best.”

The MEA member’s show, titled “Cooking is a Brees,” routinely gets hundreds of views after just 12 episodes. She mostly demonstrates how to cook quick, easy recipes with not too many ingredients. For example, her first video showed how to make grilled cheese sandwiches, because she hadn’t been to the store and didn’t have many ingredients.

Now her students are sending her photos and videos of their cooking attempts, including one boy who has some struggles in school. “His mom is sending me all these pictures of the dinners and breakfasts he’s making, and oh my gosh. He’s going to be a top chef! That’s why I’m doing it.”


Managing mental health

Still, though, it’s clear that even educators in tech-heavy communities won’t be spending hours per day in direct instruction through videos, apps, or streaming. Many have their hands full with young children of their own.

And we can’t underestimate the trauma that all of us are experiencing as the novel coronavirus has shuttered our communities, causing severe illness and thousands of deaths across the state, says Jason MacKay, treasurer of the Fitzgerald Education Association.

The 20-year educator points out that mental health staff and services have been severely cut in schools across Michigan in recent years. They will be desperately needed whenever people return to buildings, he says.

In the coming weeks, health experts say everyone will be touched by Covid-19, as friends, family members and colleagues become sick or die.

“Different districts and children within districts will of course heal differently,” said MacKay, who is now studying for a master’s degree in counseling. “Some will thrive on a return to routines and structure. However, many – including staff – will be dealing with the impact of this once-in-a-generation event for perhaps the rest of their lives.

“Mental health will be imperative,” he said before referencing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need: “We have to Maslow before we can Bloom!”

Michigan’s current and former Teachers of the Year have added their voices to many others suggesting parents and educators must temper expectations of ourselves and our children during this stressful and unpredictable time.

Current Michigan Teacher of the Year Cara Lougheed – an MEA member and high school English teacher from Rochester Community Schools – was interviewed by national news outlets after this amusing Tweet of hers went viral: “Just so everyone is clear: my children are not the least bit impressed at being homeschooled by the Michigan Teacher of the Year.”

In this Q&A with Chalkbeat, Lougheed offered realistic words of wisdom to parents and educators.

And last year’s Michigan Teacher of the Year – literacy expert and MEA member Laura Chang of Vicksburg – offered invaluable tips for parents to keep children engaged and excited about learning at home in this piece from National Geographic magazine. Her advice? Be creative, make it real, and don’t overdo.

MEA’s Herbart agreed. Near the conclusion of Thursday’s teletown hall, she noted that Whitmer’s order requires school districts to work with unions and staff to develop “appropriate” and “reasonable” plans for remote learning during this chaotic time. Health and safety come first.

That means elementary students might be given an hour or two of activities per day, and high school students might be expected to do three hours of reading, studying, or working on projects. Maybe there will be one teleconference meeting per week, for example, she said.

“This is not true distance learning,” Herbart said. “This is not a replacement for face-to-face learning. This is Covid-19 learning, and we should be cognizant as we develop these plans that they need to be appropriate to the times we’re living in, which means understanding the stress of families.”

As directed by Whitmer’s executive order, the Michigan Department of Education on Friday released a template to guide the design of continued learning plans. MEA UniServ staff are working with local associations to develop plans together with local districts.

MEA has assembled online resources for parents and educators here.

For the latest information, stay tuned to MEA’s Facebook page and www.mea.org/coronavirus.

‘Educators Are Superheros”

Ensuring students stay well fed

Creativity and connections

Coping and caring through cancellations

Commitment to equity for remote learning

Adopting new technology in a crisis

Managing mental health

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