In rural Michigan, teacher mourns coronavirus loss not counted in hospitals

mayville

Mayville third-grade teacher Tara Olar, shown here at the start of the 2019-20 school year, cried when she spoke on the phone about the pandemic-halted school year and the long-term impact it will have on her students. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

Tara Olar wants you to know she’s trying. She’s trying probably harder than she has in her life.

The third-grade teacher in tiny Mayville, spent last week helping put together two weeks’ worth of worksheets and reading materials to be dropped in the mail for the elementary school’s 39 third-graders, the first phase in moving the rural school to remote learning.

She’s started an online Google Classroom for her “kiddos.” The school has tried to contact parents by phone and email to talk about how education will continue in the wake of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order to close classrooms for the remainder of the school year.

In the end, Olar said, she knows it won’t be enough.

“They’re going to miss so much,” Olar said, beginning to cry on a phone call with a Bridge Magazine reporter. “I’m a good teacher, but I’m not a miracle worker.”

Coronavirus isn’t supposed to be a big deal here among the corn and bean fields of Michigan’s thumb, in a village that is a traffic signal short of being a one-stoplight town.

As of Saturday in all of Tuscola County, there had been 40 confirmed cases of coronavirus. Wayne County added 15 times that many cases on Saturday alone.

But from Olar’s now shuttered rural classroom, the pandemic’s losses aren’t measured with nasal swabs and body bags, but in the learning that will slip from young minds between March 16, when schools closed because of the deadly virus, and September when they are currently scheduled to reopen.

“In my heart of hearts,” she said, her voice cracking, “I know it’s going to affect them … missing so much school.”

During a normal summer break, students can lose as much as a month’s worth of instruction, with low-income students suffering the most. In the 2018-19 school year, 80 percent of Mayvillle’s third-graders were considered economically disadvantaged by the Michigan Department of Education; by comparison, about half were economically disadvantaged across the state.

Though some recent studies indicate summer learning loss doesn’t always occur, some teachers who spoke to Bridge say they typically spend up to a few weeks at the beginning of the school year re-teaching skills learned the previous spring.

That loss occurs in a normal summer break between school years, which in Michigan is about 10 weeks.

This year, if schools reopen Sept. 8, the Tuesday after Labor Day as is traditional for most Michigan schools, students will be out of classrooms for 25 weeks.

What will be the impact on learning of almost six months outside a classroom? 

“It is difficult to say with precision, but we all have to admit that there will be losses—big losses,” said Elizabeth Birr Moje, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education.

She praised Michigan teachers who are scrambling to develop remote learning opportunities for their children. But teaching remotely, through online check-ins for students with Internet access and packets of materials for those who do not, likely will only mitigate large learning loss rather than erase them, Moje said.

“We created a system of compulsory education, offered by certified professionals, because we know how important high-quality education is for societies to thrive,” Moje said. “We know that schools matter, and research tells us that good teaching is the single most important ingredient in school-based learning.”

Michigan State University researchers from the Institute for Public Policy and Research and the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative teamed up for a similarly blunt assessment.

In a statement released last week, the MSU research groups said state and local leaders “should expect students to return to school in Fall 2020 behind where they would have been in a normal school year, even without considering the trauma and dislocation associated with the pandemic.”

The MSU researchers offered further warnings:

  • The pandemic-driven school closures will increase inequalities across school districts, and between students within schools.
  • Learning loss will be concentrated in low-income schools and students.
  • The learning loss will be largest in schools hard hit by the pandemic, which presumably would include communities like Detroit, the epicenter of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Michigan and a school district with high rates of poverty and low levels of student achievement.
  • There will be an increase of students in need of remedial education. 

When Whitmer issued her executive order closing schools for the remainder of the year April 2, she acknowledged the blow to students’ academic achievement. “There is no video chat or homework packet that can replace the value of a highly trained, experienced teacher working with students in a classroom,” Whitmer said that day, “but we must continue to provide equitable educational opportunities for students during this public health crisis.”

The executive order offered school districts the option of adding summer school or opening earlier than Michigan’s traditional school opening after Labor Day.

In one notable example, Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, the largest district in the state, has said he would like to offer a more robust summer school program than usual this year to mitigate the learning loss from this spring's school closure.

The statement from MSU researchers recommended a longer school year next year or longer school days to address expected learning loss. 

“Students are unlikely to catch up on lost learning time and succeed in meeting standards for the next academic year without expanded instructional time,” according to the researchers.

Whitmer’s executive order did not appear to address whether any state funds would be available to school districts for those additional days.

U-M’s Moje acknowledged that students will lose some school learning by the fall, but cautioned against state leaders — or parents — labeling them as “behind.”

“The question is ‘behind what?’” she said. 

“Not only is everyone — globally — in the same position, it is also the case that we have accelerated our expectations for children in dramatic ways in the last 30 years. Rather than assume that the children are ‘behind’ some imaginary standard, we will have to meet children where they are and help them achieve new heights.”

‘Starting from scratch’ in fall

In Mayville, before schools closed March 16, third-grade teacher Olar said she was worried some of her students would score so low on the reading portion of the state’s standardized test, the M-STEP, that the state would recommend they be held back in grade. The 2019-20 school year was to be the first year in which third-graders could be retained for poor reading skills under Michigan’s so-called “read-or-flunk” law.

The Michigan Department of Education had projected that up to 5 percent of third-graders (about 5,000 statewide) could be flagged for possible retention.

Olar’s Mayville classroom is one of four third-grade classes Bridge had been following this school year to examine the impact of the reading law on schools, teachers and students.

With schools closed to stem the spread of the coronavirus before the M-STEP was given to students, the law is being delayed for a year. All of Olar’s third-graders will advance to fourth grade.

That’s some solace to the veteran teacher, but she said she worries about the long-term academic damage of being out of school for so long.

“The second-graders coming in, they’re going to be even farther behind,” Olar said. “This group of kiddos that are coming in, there are already low [reading test scores] coming in, and they have emotional and disciplinary problems coming in. This is going to add to it.

“There’s going to be a lot of starting from scratch for some of them.” Olar said.

She’s trying, she said. But there’s only so much she can do in the face of a pandemic.

“We like to think we are superheroes and can teach these kids and get them up to level,” Olar said. “Even normally, we’ve got so many things that are involved in our children’s education outside of schools that is always against us.

“When you put something like this on top of it? It’s …” the teacher’s voice cracked, “it’s … ugh.”

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Comments

Kevin Grand
Sun, 04/12/2020 - 11:14pm

"U-M’s Moje acknowledged that students will lose some school learning by the fall, but cautioned against state leaders — or parents — labeling them as “behind.”

“The question is ‘behind what?’” she said. "

Dean Moje's knows full well what that means. It means where the students would have been academically were it not for elected officials using faulty data & models to concoct a story to needlessly panic the population.

This is about as lame an excuse as Bill Clinton arguing the definition of "is".

Mulder
Mon, 04/13/2020 - 11:50am

Totally agree with you, Kevin, but I have to add a jab:

It also means that they weren't really being taught anything useful at U of M so there was nothing to get behind on. Go Green. BAM! :)

Matt
Mon, 04/13/2020 - 7:56am

So the question is why not run school into the summer say even just through June? But of course since we can't even expect to run schools a few extra days past expected closing day for snow days to meet the sacrosanct 180 days, who am I kidding? So next time we hear some educator clutching their breast expounding on how education (public formal classroom) is the most important institution mankind has ever instituted (and needs way more money) remember all this except it pales in comparison to summer break! Since Whitmer is 100% owned by the MEA we should expect nothing else!

Chief54
Mon, 04/13/2020 - 9:44am

This article is a sad commentary on Michigan schools. When we moved here 38 years ago we thought Michigan had a decent system but over the years it appears it has lost its direction. The school year should never have been canceled because all the students now think there is no need for any further learning.

My son and daughter in law both teach in the Boston (MA) Public Schools. My son has inner city students with handicaps in his middle school classes. He is currently teaching 4 classes a day on Zoom and getting 26 to 30 students (almost normal he says) for each class. Every student in the Boston system has a Chrome book and Comcast has provided internet access (at no charge) for all that need it.

Massachusetts has not canceled the school year so all classes still count.

Tonya
Mon, 04/13/2020 - 6:42pm

Does every student in Detroit have internet access?

Laura
Mon, 04/13/2020 - 11:06am

My son is supposed to start ESY (Summer school also known as extended school year) in July for special Needs children. At school he receives speech therapy, OT and social work services. I recall at a press conference where a reporter asked the governor how kids with IEP’s how this would affect them and about their services and the response was that the speech therapy and OT would be made up? How are they going to do this? What’s going to happen to ESY? If my son is out of school for six months he might as well just do the whole school year over.

Dan Gibson
Mon, 04/13/2020 - 11:38am

Finish the 2019/2020 school year before starting the 2020/2021 year. Students should return to exactly where they were when the 2019/2020 school was canceled. Hold off new kindergarten students until the 2020/2021 transitions have taken place. 2019/2020 seniors, of course, would not be enrolled which would allow for their teachers to team teach where needed. A three to five week transition period would allow for a more normal promotion for students and allow teachers to make better educational decisions. A procedure like this might allow for less anxiety for students, teachers and parents and, hopefully, bring students up to academic speed at the conclusion of the 2020/2021 school year.

Barry Stern
Mon, 04/13/2020 - 11:42am

Rather than trying to help children catch up with traditional academic content in rural areas during this pandemic which hasn’t reached yet into most of their communities, why not redeploy teachers and lay subject matter experts to provide instruction in areas that will help children appreciate and enjoy the unique opportunities that rural life can provide? For example –
• Form book clubs where students can access (real or Kindle) fiction books and discuss them with the help of conference call or internet meeting technologies. Maybe rural community and school libraries could facilitate these clubs while implementing social distancing guidelines.
• Teach outdoor recreational skills such as hiking, knot tying and lashing to make outdoor shelters/structures, canoeing, row boating, archery, orienteering, elemental carpentry skills, making low cost equipment for sports and games, etc.
• Gardening, vegetable raising, soil conservation, restoring wetlands, reforestation
• Cooking and nutritional economics
• Teach students to play a musical instrument of their choice and mobilize communities to figure out how to provide students with the instruments and relevant self-help instructional materials.
Every community should organize such options in their own way. In so doing, they should realize that children need not learn the same things, even those of the same age. Schools could team with churches, Boy and Girl Scouts, vocational student organizations such as 4-H, Future Farmers and DECA and volunteer organizations to staff and equip the options that the community’s children and parents prefer. In other words, until schools restart, replace have-to’s with want-to’s while complying with state and local rules to contain the Covid-19 virus. The result will be happier, healthier and socially connected children who have learned how to convert “downtime” into “uptime”.

Kevin Grand
Mon, 04/13/2020 - 12:20pm

Those aren't bad suggestions, Mr. Stern.

Sadly, Gov. Karen has restricted access to school buildings, libraries and to a degree parks.

Several communities have double-downed by aggressively "enforcing" social distancing.

Matt
Mon, 04/13/2020 - 5:25pm

Sounds like the Un-schooling movement. Not a terrible idea with the right kids and parents.

Barry Stern
Mon, 04/13/2020 - 11:47am

Rather than trying to help children catch up with traditional academic content in rural areas during this pandemic which hasn’t reached yet into most of their communities, why not redeploy teachers and lay subject matter experts to provide instruction in areas that will help children appreciate and enjoy the unique opportunities that rural life can provide? For example –
• Form book clubs where students can access (real or Kindle) fiction books and discuss them with the help of conference call or internet meeting technologies. Maybe rural community and school libraries could facilitate these clubs while implementing social distancing guidelines.
• Teach outdoor recreational skills such as hiking, knot tying and lashing to make outdoor shelters/structures, canoeing, row boating, archery, orienteering, elemental carpentry skills, making low cost equipment for sports and games, etc.
• Gardening, vegetable raising, soil conservation, restoring wetlands, reforestation
• Cooking and nutritional economics
• Teach students to play a musical instrument of their choice and mobilize communities to figure out how to provide students with the instruments and self-help instructional materials.
Every community should organize such options in their own way. In so doing, they should realize that children need not learn the same things, even those of the same age. Schools could team with churches, Boy and Girl Scouts, vocational student organizations such as 4-H, Future Farmers and DECA and volunteer organizations to staff and equip the options that the community’s children and parents prefer. In other words, until schools restart, replace have-to’s with want-to’s while complying with state and local rules to contain the Covid-19 virus. The result will be happier, healthier and socially connected children who have learned how to convert “downtime” into “uptime”.

Mulder
Mon, 04/13/2020 - 11:52am

Barry,

This "pandemic" has already come and gone in the rural areas. So many people in my quite rural area had key SARS-2 (coronavirus) symptoms after traveling in February or finding out that someone at work had it and none of us got tested. This is a giant joke. We've been living life like normal, going about our business, going to town when we please, having weekend parties as we please. Everything is fine here.

middle of the mit
Tue, 04/14/2020 - 11:11pm

Mulder, or is it Fox?

You are so wrong. The virus has just taken hold here. If it gets to our elderly population? You and I are going to see a severe backlash against the city dwellers. You can think what you want. You don't know.

Yes, a lot of the people have been living life like nothing is happening.

Cases are starting to rise in my county.

Better hope for your sake they don't rise more than what they are.

Mary J
Tue, 04/14/2020 - 6:25am

The kids will be fine. They're still learning and developing. Whether they're with a good teacher, a bad teacher, or if they self-teach...smart kids will still turn out smart, less smart kids will still struggle, and average kids will still be average. Not saying teachers and curriculum dont move the needle a tiny bit in a positive (or negative) direction, but at the end of the day....you cant force kids to learn, and you cant prevent them from learning. Kids develop how they're going to develop....we dont have anywhere near as much control of this as we think we do. Societally, we have ideas about the importance of formal elementary education that are completely out of synch with reality. The kids are learning to be adaptive...its an excellent skill that will serve them well. This teacher's hysterics remind me of Tammy Faye Baker. It's nice you care about doing a good job, but get over yourself. The kids will do just fine...the world will not end if they miss some school...or even quite a bit of it.

Erwin Haas
Tue, 04/14/2020 - 11:56am

Schooling is interfering with their education.

Denise Jacob
Tue, 04/14/2020 - 9:24am

I would love to see an effort to organize a group of retired teacher volunteers to be placed into classrooms as assistants when schools resume in the fall. These volunteers could work alongside the classroom teacher providing extra attention for the students, one on one and small group instruction, and social and emotional support. It will be time for a all hands on deck approach to creating the most robust experiences for students as they return.