Blank screens, distracted students: Michigan teachers on COVID classrooms

“I am 100 percent burned out,” said Heidi Stange, a literacy coach and elementary teacher at Cadillac Area Public Schools. (Screenshot)

One described it as the worst experience of her professional life. Several said they were frustrated and depressed. And all agreed the COVID pandemic has exposed or expanded learning gaps among students.

Bridge Michigan recently hosted a virtual roundtable with six teachers from across Michigan who led classrooms this fall from kindergarten through 12th grade. While some said the experience of teaching online has made them better teachers, they worry that the learning loss among a portion of their students during the pandemic will be felt in classrooms for years.

The roundtable offered a sobering window into the world of pandemic education faced by the state’s roughly 100,000 teachers since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered all public and private schools to close buildings and switch to remote learning March 16. Schools closed for the remainder of the school year, but were given the option to reopen this past fall.

Some districts still have not reopened classrooms, while others have lurched between in-person teaching and online instruction, as COVID-19 cases rose and fell across regions of the state. Michigan health officials ordered all high schools closed from mid-November through the holiday break as Michigan cases skyrocketed, noting that the virus spread was greater in higher grades.


Students struggling online

Switching between classroom and online learning has been tough for students and teachers, according to educators who participated in the Bridge discussion.

“When they get back in the classroom, they are extremely grateful,” said Jamie Pietron, a middle school special education teacher in the Anchor Bay Public Schools in Macomb County. “But when we were told we had to go back to virtual, you could see them being crushed. It’s just impossible for them to get on all the Zoom [classes] and keep up with the work.”

Mark Carlson teaches high school math in Armada Area Schools in Macomb County, where about 80 percent of students were in face-to-face classrooms before the state ordered high schools to go remote in November. The students are back in class this week.

“The kids who are face-to-face seem to like school more than ever,” Carlson said. But among those who chose to learn online, about half are flunking his classes.

“The [academically] upper 35 to 40 percent are just fine,” Carlson said. “But those kids are going to be fine in any educational setting. The middle of the road kids to the low-end kids … those are the kids who are [struggling].”

“Teaching virtually is like teaching with a blindfold on. Our students aren’t turning on their cameras, so you’re teaching for hours staring into a blank screen with very little response.” — Ferndale High science teacher Maurice Telesford

An early study of national student test data this fall found learning losses in math, but not in reading skills. The study may underestimate learning loss from the pandemic, because among the student test takers, there was a low percentage of low-income students, who may be more impacted by academic disparities when learning at home.

There is no statewide test data available in Michigan for students in fall 2020, but Bridge Michigan interviews with superintendents suggest school districts expect the achievement gap between poor and non-poor students to grow this year.

At Ferndale High School in Oakland County, where classes have been online since March, younger students in classes of science teacher Maurice Telesford are floundering.

The seniors are “not covering as much material, because we don’t meet as frequently, but we have about 90 percent attendance, students are doing the work, they’re asking for help,” Telesford said. “They came in with a skillset that was strong already.

“But the freshmen are really struggling,” Telesford said. “I probably have about half the class that is not passing right now. The transition from middle to high school, it’s a big jump in rigor.”

“The motivation is just not there to even get on a Zoom,” added a frustrated Carlson. “And we can’t pull them along because they aren’t even on Zoom.”

At Cheboygan High School at the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula, social studies teacher Adam Bedwin also noticed a drop in learning when all high schools switched to remote learning in November. Prior to the order, the school had been open for in-person instruction with a remote learning option.

“When we went online in November, a lot of our students who were in classrooms, they just dropped off the radar,” Bedwin said. “If kids don’t know how to type or know how to get online, it’s going to be a challenge.”

Blank screens, few laughs

Ferndale’s Telesford recalled his “darkest moment” of the fall, when he realized how little interpersonal interaction he’d had with students while teaching science online.

“I probably heard students laugh this semester four times,” Telesford said. “And that’s depressing. I’ve only had a class that had an off-topic discussion once this year. And we all know those off-topic discussions are moments students sometimes appreciate the most, spending 15 minutes discussing sweet potato pie versus pumpkin pie.

“Teaching virtually is like teaching with a blindfold on,” Telesford said. “Our students aren’t turning on their cameras, so you’re teaching for hours staring into a blank screen with very little response. For a lot of teachers, this has been a depressing year because they’re missing out on the relationships they build with students.”

Thomas Kawel, an English teacher at East Grand Rapids High School, said he misses personal relationships with fellow teachers. East Grand Rapids had in-person learning for part of the fall semester, and fully remote instruction as cases spiked in November.

“It’s the hallway conversations” that are missing from remote instruction, Kawel said. “We are not truly able to convene and collaborate and strengthen our craft in a meaningful way.

“My department has met several times, in a socially distanced way, but it’s not the same,” Kawel said. “And this is no one’s fault; it’s the time we’re living in.”

The teachers interviewed said they’re working more hours than in a regular school year, with some preparing lessons for remote-learning students at night and teaching in classrooms during the day. 

“It’s not that I don’t want to do my job,” said Carlson of Armada. “But I’m not going to do four jobs. Let’s just temper our expectations, I’m doing my very best. I have to have a life and I have a family. When my day is over, I can’t be expected to do another job.”

Heidi Stange, a literacy coach and elementary teacher at Cadillac Area Public Schools, said she was reassigned to four jobs in four months this fall as the district moved the veteran teacher to fill needs caused by the pandemic. She has spent most of the school year to date teaching online to kindergartners, first- and second-graders. At one point, she was teaching 150 students over the course of the day, preparing live, online lessons for three grades.

“I am 100 percent burned out,” Stange said. “I can retire in a year and a half, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on the [Michigan’s Office of Retirement Services] website running numbers, trying to figure it out. It has been the worst year of my life.”

Pietron, the Anchor Bay special education teacher, said she feels teachers are sometimes labeled as villains by families that see their children struggling with homebound learning. For most of the fall, Pietron taught in-person while also talking into a camera to students enrolled online. Anchor Bay switched to fully remote learning in early November when there “weren’t enough bodies” who weren’t sick or in quarantine to lead classrooms.

“Parents say [schools] should be open [because] families who want a virtual option have a virtual option,” Pietron said. “But what they fail to realize is I don’t have an option. I have [fellow teachers] who have medical conditions who can’t return to work.”

Schools across the country have scrambled to adapt to online learning while retrofitting classrooms with plexiglass and spaced desks students learning in-person. In Michigan, students and teachers also are required to wear masks.

The teachers participating in the Bridge roundtable acknowledged that many of the challenges were likely unavoidable during the worst pandemic in a century, and that working through them may well improve their teaching in the long run.

Ferndale’s Telesford said schools are doing a better job teaching students remotely than they did in the spring, when classrooms were shuttered virtually overnight. And Stange of Cadillac said the limited time she has online with students has taught her to “make every second count,” a lesson she said she’ll carry with her after classrooms return to normal.

Cheboygan’s Bedwin suggested the state can help teachers by mandating additional planning time during the pandemic to give teachers more room to put together online lessons. That’s been done elsewhere — in Minnesota, for instance, Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order in November mandating an extra 30 minutes of planning time a day for online learning.

Armada’s Carlson urged the Whitmer administration to make faster decisions on schools. Whitmer and state legislative leaders allowed schools to make their own choices about whether to open classrooms this fall or remain online, but other pandemic-related rules — from safety standards to whether districts must meet standard day and hour instruction requirements — took too long.

“Make decisions in a timely fashion so districts can make plans,” Carlson said.

Ferndale’s Telesford and East Grand Rapids’ Kawel said they hope schools’ struggles to meet students’ needs during the pandemic will lead policymakers to look seriously at education reform, from additional funding to greater broadband access across the state.

“I’d love it if someone convened a body to put together a 20-year plan of, here’s what we want schools to do and here’s how we get there, without changing every four years when there’s an election,” Telesford said.

“We love our students, we love our jobs,” Kawel said. “Public education is what makes the state work. But we are going to see teachers burn out. 

“We are getting to a breaking point if Michigan is going to take education seriously.”

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middle of the mit
Tue, 01/05/2021 - 11:58pm

Teachers, this IS for you!

Never again, should society or Conservatives...........ever DENY your contribution to society.

I have been hearing for more than a decade about how schools and teachers are a detriment to society. You are teaching compassion, empathy, sympathy...................let alone science, math, languages that AREN'T English! YOU are teaching Liberal Arts! How dare you!

Our children spend too much time in your liberal re-education camps!

But now? WE need to you to TAKE OUR KIDS! We can not deal with our own children all day. We can not teach them and work to take care of our own family. Why won't you lazy people get up and do the job we pay you do to....................teach our children!!!
Isn't it amazing? The level of cognitive dissonance, that is.

I see it in my own family. You have to see it in your own, don't you?

How do we deal with it?
The history of homeschooling goes back as long as there was formal education. Children have received academic education at home for centuries…even thousands of years. Birth of the Modern Home School Movement The modern movement for home schooling (moving back to the way that it was) began around the 1960s.

Raymond Moore
His belief came from the position that education should be more than just the learning of facts. He believed that public education had a large number of negative aspects to it and his platform was based on the education of children returning to the responsibility of parents and the inclusion of a value structure and instruction in core beliefs.

Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand is the third figure which helped in the creation of the modern homeschooling movement. Her belief was that every child should have the chance to develop their mind to their potential and emphasis on the individual freedom of each person.

As part of the history of home schooling, these three people were the start of modern home school movement and surprisingly their three separate views and reasons for promoting homeschooling actually worked well together to bring together a complete change in the way many parents thought about education.

Did you know that it was not until the second half of the 1900s when public schooling was mandated by the government?

Before this home schooling was commonplace. These above individuals and the call to return to the era where parents were responsible for their children’s education gained popularity during the individuality movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
Let us get rid of the Property tax that funds schools! Let parents pay for their childs education. Now do you know why there are taxes to pay for public education? If you think giving your child a credit for collage is bad..............let us stop doing it for your undergraduate children. If they or you can't pay for a general education..............will you ever actually appreciate it? This is a loooong lamented argument. How much did you pay for college education that you got when States paid MOST of your tuition?

Those who told us home schooling was the end all be all? Need to figure out what they believe in. Otherwise..........why should we take their flip flop positions into account at all?

TAKE a STAND and then.................STAND there. If that position is that important..............why don't you defend it when it's time is here?

Don't cry to teachers that you can't deal with your own children.

George Hagenauer
Wed, 01/06/2021 - 11:33am

This post misses the fact that a major push on home schooling came not just from Ayn Rand but fro left wing or left-anarchist families looking for other options in education due to opposition to the dominant ideology taught in public schools in the 1960's .These were the folks who founded alternative schools, freedom schools, free schools etc. and who provided a key support service often to home schoolers. I know that because for 5 years I volunteered to support home schoolers of all type of families . It was only later that the far right and religious movement moved heavily into home schooling- part of this was W. Clement Stone's funding of the Marva Collins school in Chicago. There is a lot more to this story than is normally told.

Hank B
Wed, 01/06/2021 - 12:00am

Not to be crude but: Duh. What did people think was going to happen??

Wed, 01/06/2021 - 7:37am

Keep up the good work Whitmer, keep our kids uneducated, keep our economy tanking. I'd like to say that we're finally reaching the Democrats race to the bottom, but then if I do I know you'll break those barriers and keep the race going.

Wed, 01/06/2021 - 8:41am

Reminds me of the GOP legislature in Michigan playing solitaire at home all day.

Robert Smith
Wed, 01/06/2021 - 7:36pm

A better solution, go to work, do your job or you will not be paid.

No more playtime for children at home.

No more playtime for teachers.

No mo

M. Harmon
Wed, 01/06/2021 - 8:52am

At least they have a job. They fought for keeping schools closed and are now complaining. SUCK IT UP BUTTERCUPS. It is not about you. Think of tour kids first or find another profession that has the same benefit package. Oh, that's right; no such profession.

Sat, 01/09/2021 - 11:47am

Amen! No accountability for remote teaching. We keep hearing about remote learning failing, but its remote TEACHING that is failing. Businesses adapted, but education (teachers) didn't and for one simple reason - no consequences for failure.

Sandra Clifton
Wed, 01/06/2021 - 9:11am

As a parent, and a full time employee working on-line from home, I understand the struggles of remote learning/working. However, I find it hard to understand how any teacher can be "100% burned out" - I have two high school students sophomore & junior . My 10th grader is in a permanent virtual academy. He has learning disabilities and struggles with academics . He GPA and school performance has improved dramatically since he began on-line schooling. We are fortunate to be able to provide one-on-one guidance and supervision, however his counselor and teachers have skype meetings quite often, and are readily available to answer questions to help him. My 11th grade student, while doing well, does appear to be getting LESS instruction than he would if he were attending in-person classes. His class times are 60-90 minutes, and often times the teachers are only skyping lessons with the students for a maximum of 30 minutes! Many times it is 15 minutes or less! The amount of class time is not be utilized at all! How can the teachers be burned out when they are not even working a full schedule with teaching their students? Perhaps they are doing 1-1 meetings with students the rest of the time? I don't know. I do know that my son has much less work, much less instruction, and I do believe he is losing ground as far as his education goes. As with all types of jobs, they all have pros and cons, and when it comes down to it, it's what you put in to it that makes it successful. Obviously, there are very different levels of teaching, elementary thru high school, special education, etc. Parent involvement is critical. I think all can step up to make it a success. (BTW - I feel that schools should be open, but we have to work with what is mandated.) Thank you.

Wed, 01/06/2021 - 9:16am

Our son is a senior in high school working online. He loves it and we love it. He gets to sleep in longer. He has alternating A and B day schedule, so there is no way he can have six exams in one day. The maximum is three! We save money on clothes, car expenses, etc. He sees limited friends in a safe manner.

As a family we all definitely want to finish the year online. Imagine that: parents and teens in agreement about something! We really value education in our family and encourage top performance, best efforts, but think these students are learning other very valuable life lessons that you do not/cannot learn in a classroom. The MOST important lesson you can teach anyone is to be ADAPTABLE.

We are in the middle of a 100 year pandemic and we must adapt. Seems like some of these teachers having such a hard time with these changes never learned how to adapt. It makes one wonder about their qualifications teach children about adapting. Lastly, teachers, be grateful for your steady salary. Many people are not so lucky at all to get a steady salary, let alone a nice pension.

Wed, 01/06/2021 - 10:10am

Uneducated citizens are much easier for the government to control.

Brighter side
Wed, 01/06/2021 - 10:13am

Online teachers should incorporate more student interaction with instructional games and tools like Kahoot or other means. Lecture time should be shorter with more interaction, supplemented by online computer program practice exercises self-paced, with reinforcement of practice where needed on an individualized basis, ie, explanations and additional questions. Live video of the students isn't crucial, but should be incorporated occasionally.

Teaching Truth
Wed, 01/06/2021 - 10:22am

Many students are left behind regardless of circumstances. Parental involvement and values play a crucial role. Teachers can help, but they can't perform miracles. It does take a village and unfortunately our country is extremely divided blurring the lines between fact and fiction, undermining science. How can anyone teach or learn under such circumstances, especially when parents can't be trusted???? Children need love and security. They need to be able to trust their parents first and foremost.

Teaching Philosophy
Wed, 01/06/2021 - 10:38am

If you want to be petty, silly, or ignorant, call it "socialism" or "communism", but in order to learn anything, you need "consensus". Think about it, from a philosophical perspective, in order to learn, to communicate, we need as human beings at a most basic level to "agree with the meaning we assign to the words we use". You can't just randomly reassign meaning to words and expect to be understood.

Also you can't communicate like a thug with unspoken meaning, something like "that's a nice car, it'd be a pity is something happened to it." That might work in politics or in criminal enterprises, but it doesn't work with math, science, or even grammar. You need to speak overtly, truthfully, and logically. You must teach critical thinking, point out bias and inferences.

Once you throw out the rules, you throw out 1,000's of years civilization. We are reduced to neanderthals. Just as there is evolution, there is devolution. We cannot politicize our curriculum as GOP legislators in Michigan have been trying to do. We are witnessing the devolution of knowledge and wisdom in real time, just as we watch the evolution and mutation of a dangerous virus, leaving us more vulnerable than ever.

Don't lose the faith though because Darwin was right and today it's not survival of the fittest in the sense of brawn, but survival of the smartest who will prevail. After all, we have evolved brains, if we learn to use them. It's no coincidence that Trump supporters are less educated and sporting guns. They don't use their brains. They prefer to follow an unscrupulous billionaire cult leader over a cliff and vote against their own interests. Trump is the Jim Jones of our generation.

Wed, 01/06/2021 - 11:36am

Thank you for this. I like that the teachers are able to speak up on this issue and I will call it an issue. I'm not speaking to Covid-19 at all in this, ONLY the issue that we are seeing with the ability to teach in our current environment.

I have noticed a severe decline in what my girlfriend's children are learning and having been an adjunct professor I can relate to the hardships of teaching both online and in-seat (Hybrid) classes., they have always been the hardest classes to teach in. I can't imagine how hard it is for all you K-12 teachers that have relied on the ability to have children in-seat.

I think giving the students/parents options for both in-seat and online for the same classroom a bad idea. If a district decides that they need to be online for any reason, I truthfully believe it would be best to have the entire district be that way. You teachers are being stretched way to thin in these types of settings and it is NOT your fault that you have to adjust to all this.

I know that this one comment won't make a difference, I just hope that you keep doing everything that you are and continue to learn yourselves. I very much appreciate everything that you all are attempting to do in order to provide an education for these children. It's definitely a broken system at this time, NOT because of our teachers, but because we have never had to cope with settings like these. New is never easy and all we can do is grow in our ability to educate.

Again thank you all for everything that you are doing.

George Hagenauer
Wed, 01/06/2021 - 11:44am

A larger question here is how do we integrate what worked this year online or in distance learning with what was normal schooling before this. I know young children often with special needs who have excelled at home learning independently and now dread going back to school. Instead of the ideological issues usually tossed into the education debate - is there a way to work from the learning style of children and develop programs for some of them that meld independent learning (on line or otherwise) with group classroom work at school? This year has been chaotic for many but also has worked for some children. I am not sure either model addresses the needs of these children . I think we need to save the good parts of this chaotic year of school and figure out how to create the flexibility to address the needs of children who learn in ways not addressed fully by either a totally online or in class approach.

Wed, 01/06/2021 - 4:24pm

Every week I respond to this site and it never shows up. You want me to donate to this site. Well guess what it is not going to happen. R.L.

Wed, 01/06/2021 - 4:37pm

The result of all this will probably be more teachers heading to the exits looking for a better job and fewer people wanting to get into the profession which was a major problem before the pandemic and might get worse.

Sat, 01/09/2021 - 12:05pm

There is not a single teacher who has been employed for more than 5 years in education that would survive a real world job with real world hours and days of work, real world benefits, or real world expectations. People may elect not to go into teaching, but those already in it won't leave it because they know they have it made. Most people change employeers 10-12 times in a career so they can better themselves financially or for other reasons, teachers maybe twice.

Go Back to Work
Mon, 01/11/2021 - 9:45am

Strange that the people complaining about how bad online learning it are the same people who refuse to go back to work and do their jobs.