Local Schools Adapt to Online, Hybrid Learning
Since lockdowns began last march, in-person learning is no longer the norm. After several Michigan K-12 students missed out on weeks of education last spring, local schools stepped up to maintain quality educational experiences for Portland students in the midst of COVID-19.
Returning to in-person education after suspending in-person learning last spring required tremendous planning and continuous flexibility, especially when taking steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19. “Our goal across the district is to decrease the amount of contact that the kids have, and decrease the amount of kids and people that kids have contact with,” said Will Heath, Superintendent of Portland Public Schools.
“If by chance there’s a positive case, we only have a small group of people who have to quarantine, not a whole grade level or a whole school. One of the reasons that Portland has been able to stay in person this long is because we have done a really good job with that,” said Heath.
To avoid COVID-19 outbreaks, Heath and his team made extensive schedule changes for every school in the district. “At the elementary level, everything you do is within your class. At the middle school, we created cohorts. Since most middle school kids have the same schedule, they move with each other throughout the day. That prevents them from intermingling with another cohort. So if we did have a positive case, it would just be within that cohort,” said Heath. Because high school schedule changes are limited due to the wide ranges of specialized courses offered, high school students transitioned to a block schedule that decreased their number of classes from six to three periods in a school day. “We cut the chances of them spreading COVID in half by doing that,” said Heath.
Despite best efforts to transition to online learning, many still prefer in-person instruction. “Portland St. Patrick has prioritized in-person learning for every family who wishes, and our policy changes have allowed us to safely and effectively continue with in-person learning at the elementary level,” said Randy Hodge, Principal at St. Patrick School. Per the most recent executive order, Michigan high schools were moved to online instruction only from November 18, 2020 until winter break ended in early January, 2021.
When in person education is not possible, students can be vulnerable to learning disruptions and delays. Measures taken by Portland community schools prevent those disruptions from happening. Hodge explained that when school is moved online, “Our tech platforms allow teachers and students to seamlessly pivot to remote learning. These platforms allow students to connect with their teachers and peers, both live and at times that are convenient for them.”
To increase the ease of transitions, “The Office of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Grand Rapids has provided advanced training on the Canvas platform and support to assist our teachers,” according to Hodge.
One of the top concerns for Michigan students is equitable access to the internet and online learning tools. Portland schools took measures to ensure that no student was left behind. “100% of our students have access to the internet and the ability to learn online. For families in remote areas, we have found resources for them to connect to WiFi,” said Hodge.
Transitioning back and forth between online and in person is important because “The longer you give a student downtime, the harder it is to get them back,” said Heath. “We developed plans so that we would have less than a 48 hour turnaround from the time we got the notice [to transition to online learning] to the time we went [online],” he said. In practice, two transitions to online learning were ready to go by the next day.
To improve remote learning, the district recently passed a bond allowing Portland schools to enhance their learning technology. Portland schools were able to purchase enough Chromebooks for 50% of the student body. With left over funds, Portland school district was one of the first to place order for more when the pandemic struck. Because of this early action, Portland schools provided every child in the district with a Chromebook. To improve remote education even further, Heath thanked parents, students, and community members for their support and invited them to contact him with any feedback.
COVID-19 had impacted everyone’s emotional and mental wellbeing, but schools have taken steps to improve mental health during the pandemic. “We are very proud of Emma Schuerer, a senior, who worked with Jenny Garcia, school counselor, to launch the Mind Over Matter Committee that focuses on school community building and culture. This group, made up of students from 6-12 grades, focus on self-care techniques, and provide opportunities to practice gratitude and patience,” said Hodge.