How will rural, low-income Michigan students learn during a pandemic?

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Millions of kids across the country are at home, academic years interrupted, due to school closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered K-12 schools closed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Under the governor’s order, issued April 2, school districts are required to provide further educational opportunities through remote or online learning for the remainder of the academic year.

For some low-income or rural families, however, a move from in-person to online learning is impossible. 

Around 12.3% of Michigan children — about 267,000 kids — live without access to the internet, according to data gathered in 2018. That number is from a data project by Kids Count in Michigan, part of a larger national effort to determine the well-being of children and their health, education and safety needs. 

Whitmer’s executive order stated school districts that choose to institute online work plans can’t penalize students who don’t have access to broadband services. The order requires school districts to make choices, like distribute laptops and ask teachers to move courses online or allow students without internet access to take paper packets of schoolwork home. 

Expanding high-quality broadband internet is also a policy priority for Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II. Gilchrist has noted a stark lack of access in Detroit and the Upper Peninsula, which he called a significant barrier to employment, health services and education.  

Kelsey Perdue, director of Kids Count in Michigan, said it’s important to keep internet access shortages in mind when making decisions during the pandemic.

“We have an internet access issue for not just students in accessing remote learning options, but also for their parents. Some jobs are going online,” Perdue said. “There is the issue of both internet access, but also availability of a device at home.”

Whitmer closes schools for 2019-20, districts to decide learning plans

Perdue said she’s glad that Whitmer’s order included an outline for school districts to provide non-virtual learning options.

“I think that’s a great strategy, and I’m glad [Whitmer] outlined that area clearly for districts, keeping in mind that access is not the same by geographic area, by income, by race,” Perdue said. 

School districts have until April 28 to develop new learning plans and inform the state about them. Hybrid learning — or a combination of online, paper and other remote work options — is useful to bridge digital divides, Perdue said.

“I feel confident that from there, school districts will be able to adopt plans that might be hybrid learning so they can reach all students,” Perdue said. “We can make sure that all students do have access to high-quality learning.”

Economic disparities within the educational system are being aggravated by the pandemic, Perdue said. She said she hopes legislators and policymakers emerge from the pandemic with solutions to curb them.

“This crisis is showing the inequities and the lack of access that students are dealing with day in and day out,” Perdue said. “And that is relevant every single day of every single year, pandemic or not.”

Pandemic highlights gaps in internet access in Michigan and nationwide

Digital divide

Michigan ranks 19th nationwide when it comes to internet coverage, speed and price, according to a report by BroadbandNow Research. As the Advance previously reported, gaps in internet access are prominent in rural, low-income and tribal communities. 

Legislators, including one from Michigan, are also pushing Congress to provide relief to smaller broadband providers who are experiencing gaps in payments from subscribers.

In a letter to congressional leaders, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) and more than two dozen other lawmakers asked that additional COVID-19 relief packages include funding for small broadband providers. In the letter, lawmakers noted how many Americans are out of work due to COVID-19, and that puts a strain on paying bills.

“Small providers … may be unable to sustain services if customers are unable to pay for a prolonged period of time, jeopardizing broadband connectivity for customers all across this country,” legislators wrote. “Without action from Congress, small providers may be unable to continue to help ensure that the communities they serve can access distance learning and telehealth services.”

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Coverage and cost issues 

Back in March, Detroit Public Community School District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti urged Whitmer to close state K-12 schools for the rest of the academic year.

In a letter dated March 23, Vitti urged Michigan leaders and public education officials to consider planning for an immediate transition from in-person learning to remote online work. Vitti suggested providing laptops equipped with internet service to students in districts where they’re readily available.

But he expressed concerns at the idea of requiring all students to fully transition online, saying that “requiring students to continue credit attainment through virtual school or pure online learning with no time for transition would be disastrous. Such a decision would leave behind thousands of students who would not have the family support structure to navigate through the faceless and nameless bureaucracy of virtual education.”

Detroit and other school districts in Michigan are sending home paper packets with children because transitioning online presents an affordability issue to parents who can’t pay for a laptop or internet service.

“The learning process should be considered enrichment for students, not required since it will be impossible to ensure equal access to all students,” Vitti wrote. “However, districts should be required to offer the learning opportunities just the same.”

DPSCD educational packets | Ken Coleman

State Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) represents a large swath of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He said that while his region does have several robust areas of broadband, it’s pricey. It’s also difficult to maintain strong cell phone coverage and internet connection in more remote areas, he said.

“When you get out to the countryside, it can be really tough,” McBroom said. 

Sen. Ed McBroom | Michael Gerstein

Having the option to continue with traditional curriculums is crucial, McBroom said. But he added that online components can be useful for high school students.

“I think we can continue to utilize those options, both the more traditional and the online options, and get these kids what they need to finish the year, in a sense, and pick things back up in the fall,” he said.

McBroom said a few of his constituents had called his office to report decreases in their internet speeds, an occurrence that’s become more common during the pandemic. The state senator attributed it to higher numbers of people at home due to Michigan’s stay at home order and school closures.

“We’ll see how it is in the next couple weeks, when we try to make do with doing more school online,” McBroom said. 

The switch is not a death knell that’s going to make children doomed to fail, the state senator said. He thinks K-12 teachers will pick up where things left off and morph what was being learned these months into what’s being learned next fall.

It’s no walk in the park to keep children entertained and educated during COVID-19 quarantines, he admitted, when asked about his advice for parents during this time.

The Big Carp River cuts a swath through an autumn colored forest. Viewed from a rocky bluff on a hiking trail at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness Area, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula | iStockphoto

McBroom, who has five children and resides in the Upper Peninsula, suggested parents intercut children’s schoolwork with trips outdoors, now that spring has arrived in Michigan.

“It’s not easy. It’s frustrating,” McBroom said. “My wife expressed it to me a number of times, because it’s different from what it was.”

Broadband, WiFi resources available during pandemic

There are free or reduced-cost options for people seeking internet services at this time.

Large service providers like Comcast recently took steps to lift mobile data caps for users and said they wouldn’t cut off internet access to people unable to make payments during the pandemic. Comcast is providing its Xfinity WiFi service for free for 60 days, while Charter and Altice are offering free broadband and WiFi to households with K-12 students.

The Michigan Department of Education (MDE) also has a list of home internet resources available at lower prices, which can viewed here.