‘It’s been hell.’ 1 house, 5 kids, and a pandemic struggle to learn at home

Langell boy reclining on the floor

An exasperated Jameson Langell, 5, lies down on a bench in the kitchen of his home and says he doesn’t want to work on his computer any more. The Langell family is struggling with online learning and a weak WiFi connection (Bridge photo by Daytona Niles)

In a log home on a dirt road in Montcalm County, school is supposed to be in session.

Ten-year-olds Reese and cousin Lukas sit at desks in a hallway trying to sign in to the same Tri County Area Schools fourth-grade classroom on their laptops. Lukas’ connection works, while the connection for Reese, sitting just feet away, is frozen.

Kensley has managed to sign on to her sixth-grade class, and she scribbles notes as the teacher talks, while on a couch in the living room, 8-year-old Karlyn’s computer disconnects from her virtual second-grade classroom while her teacher is talking.

And in the kitchen, 5-year-old Jameson lies down on a bench and covers his eyes, saying he doesn't want to work on his computer any more today.

Running between the children is Sarah Langell, mom to four remote-learning students and aunt to another who comes to the home with his 3-year-old brother while their own mother is at work. Sarah is a hair stylist by profession, but for the last three weeks, she’s spent her days trying to be a computer tech and teaching assistant.

It’s not going well.

“It’s been hell,” said Langell.

Sarah Langell helps her daughters Kensley, 11, and Karlyn, 8, with their school work. Remote learning has been “frustrating,” Langell said. (Bridge photo by Daytona Niles)

Across Michigan, children are learning at home in numbers not seen since the spring, when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered all public and private K-12 schools to switch to remote learning to try to stem the spread of the coronavirus. All high school buildings are closed through at least Tuesday, under a three-week closure order from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. That order might be extended in coming days, and even if it isn’t, many districts have chosen to go fully remote until at least January because of high COVID case numbers and a shortage of substitute teachers to fill the classrooms of teachers now in quarantine.

Even before the rash of building closures in recent weeks, between a third and a half of all Michigan K-12 students were taking all of their classes from home.

Children spread out across the living room doing homework. (Bridge photo by Daytona Niles)

Online learning is a particularly fraught affair in rural Michigan, where access to high-speed Internet is limited. Across the state, 3 out of 4 school-age children have high-speed Internet in their homes, with Michigan ranking 33rd among the states. In the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan where the Langells live, just 63 percent have easy access to broadband, according to research by Public Policy Associates, a Lansing-based public policy firm.

“The pandemic has really shone a light on the issue of broadband access disparities,” said Dan Quinn, director of education policy for Public Policy Associates.


Tri County Area Schools, a rural district of about 1,800 students, gave families the choice of in-person instruction or remote learning this fall. The Langell family chose to put their four kids on the bus each morning to attend classes in school buildings.

A common sight in the Langell household in Montcalm County: a computer disconnection during a virtual classroom. (Bridge photo by Daytona Niles)

That ended Nov. 19, when the MDHHS ordered high schools closed for three weeks, and Tri County officials made the decision, at the recommendation of the local health department, to close K-8 classrooms also.

Tri County Superintendent Allen Cumings said staff members handed out Verizon WiFi hotspots to 250 families in the district who did not have WiFi at home. The Lanells, who live in a rural area without access to broadband, received one of the devices, which provides WiFi through a cellphone signal.

The device is a good stopgap for students without broadband access, but it doesn’t have the bandwidth for five students to live-stream classes on school-issued Chromebooks at the same time, said Public Policy Associates’ Quinn.

The five children move from kitchen to living room to bedrooms during school days, and Langell trails behind with the hotspot, trying to triangulate a location for the device where all can get a signal strong enough to connect with their teachers.

“I feel very fortunate, because our district has provided hotspots, but there’s been so many issues,” Langell said. “I feel like we’re on overload.”

A typical homebound school day starts later than in-person school days (“They don’t have to get up at 6:30, eat and get to the bus.”) but lasts longer, as kids wait their turn to get WiFi access.

“It’s not unusual for my fourth-grader to be working past 5 p.m.,” Langell said.

Sometimes kids can’t connect to their classrooms at all; other times, the signal drops in mid-lesson. Langell has seen the faces of her children’s classmates pop onto screens, then disappear minutes later.

“I think, ‘at least we’re not the only ones’” having problems.” Langell said.

Checklists and cheat sheets hang around the Langell house to assist with remote learning, which has been a challenge for the rural family because of poor WiFi connection. (Bridge photo by Daytona Niles)

Tri County Superintendent Cumings said the pandemic-induced changes in school schedules have been tough on students, parents and teachers alike.

“We’re trying to do the best we can to manage it,” Cumings said. “We’re forced to make these decisions as schools, and parents ... are forced to be teachers. It is stressful.”

Langell sometimes cries when talking about her struggles to help her kids. She doesn’t know how to fix computer glitches. She spends so much time helping her younger children, she’s left sixth-grader Kensley on her own. “I have to assume she’s keeping up,” she said.

At the end of one frustrating day, Langell wrote an email to the second-grade teacher of daughter Karlyn expressing her concern that her kids weren’t keeping up. “I feel as though I’m failing them,” Karlyn wrote.

“You can’t feel as much of a failure as I do,” the teacher wrote back. “I feel like I’m building the plane as I fly it, and parts keep falling off!”

On Thursday, Langell told Bridge Michigan she hoped classes would resume the following week. By the next day, she’d received an email from Tri County schools announcing that school buildings would be closed through at least Jan. 11.

Jameson Langell makes a funny face at the request of his Early Five teacher during a remote lesson. (Bridge photo by Daytona Niles)

All school districts in Montcalm County are now fully remote until January.

Superintendent Cumings told Bridge that with cases on the rise in Montcalm County, and the trouble the district has keeping up with contact tracing in its classrooms, it was difficult to justify reopening for the two weeks before the winter break.

Langell said she doesn’t blame the schools. She knows they are in the same no-win situation as her family, caught between education and safety in the worst pandemic in a century.

“There are blessings in it. I’m thankful to have time with them. But no one’s winning,” Langell said.

“I feel the teachers are doing the best they can, and they’re trying to implement [online learning] as best they can. But I feel like [my children] are  not getting the education they need. And that’s frustrating.”

Lukas Bazzett and cousin Reese Langell, both 10, normally are in the same classroom. With their school building closed, they work remotely in the same home. (Bridge photo by Daytona Niles)

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Mon, 12/07/2020 - 9:19am

It is totally unacceptable for this country to be this internet poor. Broadband access companies need to shoulder some responsibility and get out there and provide a service instead of lining the pockets of the executives.

George Hagenauer
Mon, 12/07/2020 - 10:08am

Having lived rural for 25 years before moving back to the city, I can testify that the rural divide is an issue (though also is affordable broadband in low income urban areas - it took us 4 years to get it here). This is aggravated by tech people who are used to the highest possible broadband so a lot of the web-based applications just don't work well in many areas of the country. Even here when the schools are zooming you find it difficult to do many things on line. One solution may be to mandate that folks in SiIicon Valley and other areas working in high end tech industries have to work for a period of time in areas of really bad intent connections (our rural home was 3 miles from the largest software company in the midwest but they were in the city). If that happened we might see some solutions including resources to subsidize lower cost broadband in rural and inner city communities.

Robyn A Tonkin
Mon, 12/07/2020 - 10:24am

Our daughter and her husband and six year old son live on the East Coast. Their school district has the same problems that school districts in Michigan have , as regards making computer teaching/learning work for children. We are in the midst of a pandemic, so it's best to take a long view. Children will catch up, and learning will go on, once we have a vaccine and once people agree to be vaccinated, and life assumes a new normal. Our grandson sometimes is at home learning, sometimes he is in daycare when his parents are both at work. He hates computer learning. He is an outdoorsey child--he loves hiking, bicycling, kayaking, working in the garden, so he has never been glued to a screen--we are all adamantly opposed to that. His gramma (me) a low tech, old fashioned sort of gal, sent him four workbooks she bought online. Two emphasize first grade skills, two emphasize penmanship and spelling. The penmanship workbooks teach cursive writing, which his school no longer teaches, and which his parents want him to learn. He loves these workbooks--they are colorful, fun, highly interesting and have lots of lessons that are replete with animal pictures. He loves animals. The workbooks reinforce learning and study habits, and make the times he must put up with computer learning more bearable in some way. Terrible experiences can have elements of personal growth. A year ago, I had no idea what "melt blown polypropylene" was. Now I am using it in sophisticated home made masks. My grandson is becoming adept at learning in unstructured environments. We both have new skills.

Mon, 12/07/2020 - 11:11am

So are kids widely susceptible to COVID-19 and able to pass it on to adults or not? (We're not talking exceptional cases.) Faci and other scientists are saying we should not close schools, so then why are we? Seems elected leaders follow the "science" when it fits their political interests to do so. And not so much when it doesn't.

Mon, 12/07/2020 - 2:04pm

Amen, Matt! Although it was quite the juggling act some days, our local district kept all our buildings open every day until the "pause" forced a shutdown of the high school. Based on strong pressure from the local health department, all grades K-12 moved fully to online learning. Parents are upset, students are upset, teachers are missing their kids and classrooms, and at least in our local area the "pause" has had little to no effect on the number of cases based on what I have seen from the daily statistics in the news media. But I fully expect that the one-size-fits-all solution that the state has imposed will be extended at least through the end of the year. There is no mechanism to allow schools who were successfully keeping their classrooms open with absolutely no evidence of virus transmission within the schools to remain open, at least at the high school level. The CDC has said it is safe for kids to be in their classrooms, but apparently that "science" doesn't fit Whitmer's model.

Mon, 12/07/2020 - 5:00pm

Her being owned by the MEA wouldn't have anything to do with it, would it?

Mon, 12/07/2020 - 3:26pm

The recommendations the CDC came out with in August just in time for school were very much at odds with their previous stances, and we're widely criticized as being a cave to economic/political pressures in order to free up parents to return to work. And since you apparently haven't noticed, there were school outbreaks all over Michigan at the start of the academic year that eventuay forced closures.

Mon, 12/07/2020 - 4:42pm

One thing I think these articles miss, or at least do a disservice to, is always referring to broadband access as a "rural" thing, painting a picture of deep Northern Michigan and far away from metro cities. Broadband access is a problem *everywhere* in Michigan. I live in the heart of mid-Michigan, 20 miles from Lansing, a few minutes from the interstate highway. I'm technically outside the nearest city limits, but by maybe 1/4 mile. I'm lucky enough to have cable Internet at 100mbps (the highest offered) so I'm one of the fortunate ones. But that speed is laughable compared to cable Internet offerings elsewhere, and I'm locked to that one provider. The only other option is DSL at a fraction of the speed, or satellite/fixed wireless which has its own host of problems. Go another half mile down the road and I'm out of the cable footprint and have only those paltry options.

Imagine if a county could wire up 100% access to fiber Internet (gigabit speed or faster)! That would be a huge draw to both businesses and families. Now imagine if you could say that for every county in the state. This pandemic has only shown a stark light on the digital divide we already knew was there. Any more, not having high speed wired internet access should be the same as saying you don't have electricity, or running water. High speed internet access is a basic utility and should be treated as such.

Todd Priest
Wed, 12/09/2020 - 4:41pm

Kids are safer in school but democrats don't care.