Back-to-school concerns: U-M experts available

August 10, 2021

ANN ARBOR—Students head back to in-person education across the country, some this month, amid questions about health and safety, learning loss and educational disparities caused by a COVID-19 pandemic year. University of Michigan education and health experts can address these and other back-to-school issues.


Christina Weiland is an associate professor at the School of Education, with a courtesy appointment at the Ford School of Public Policy. Her areas of focus include early education and educators, preschool and kindergarten. She is particularly interested in the active ingredients that drive children’s gains in successful, at-scale public preschool programs.

“The early education sector was in a fragile state before the COVID-19 crisis and has suffered greatly over the last 20 months. Now with the Delta variant, early educators and families are faced with even more uncertainty and stress heading into fall,” she said. “Recovery is going to require finally building the early education infrastructure the U.S. has so long neglected. How resources earmarked for recovery efforts are spent is going to have an enormous impact on who bounces back from the crisis this school year and who falls further behind.”

Contact: 734-615-1530, [email protected]

Pamela Davis-Kean, professor of psychology and research professor at the Institute for Social Research, has new data she says shows the “growing inequalities in education due to the pandemic.” Her research reveals parents’ greatest challenges during the pandemic with their children’s schooling, including parents with bachelor’s degrees and above reporting a lack of social interaction, and those with less than a bachelor’s talking about achievement issues and lack of connection with teachers.

Contact: 734-644-0553, [email protected]

Nell Duke, professor at the School of Education, focuses on early literacy development, particularly among children living in economic poverty. Her specific areas of expertise include development of informational reading and writing in young children, comprehension development and instruction in early schooling, and issues of equity in literacy education.

“Supporting young children’s literacy development should be a high priority every year, but is especially crucial in the coming year,” she said.

Contact: 734-615-0586, [email protected]

Alison Miller is an associate professor of health behavior and health education at the School of Public Health. Her research focuses on child bio-behavioral regulation, family functioning and social context. She studies basic developmental processes, including self-regulation of emotions, sleep, eating behavior and neuroendocrine stress responses in young children.

“Children, as well as teachers, have experienced significant stressors and often exposure to traumas such as loss of parents or other loved ones, food insecurity, evictions and/or job losses related to the pandemic,” she said. “Importantly, communities have been unequally impacted, with communities of color experiencing increased inequities related to the ‘dual pandemics’ of COVID-19 and racism. Some schools, therefore, will be serving communities where most of the student (and possibly teacher) population will have experienced trauma. Furthermore, school administrators and parents alike have been burdened with making high-stakes decisions about health and safety for a year and a half, often with little support, and are simply exhausted.

“It is important to keep in mind that returning to school may trigger increased stress reactions on top of existing trauma. It is thus essential to be aware of the signs and symptoms of trauma and be ready to assist children as well as teachers as they reenter schools. Although we are aware of academic losses due to the pandemic, children can’t learn if they are overwhelmed by trauma or experiencing mental health challenges. For example if children are ‘acting out’ or seem not to be paying attention in the classroom, it is important to consider these are possible signs of trauma rather than seeing it as a behavior problem. Becoming trauma-informed won’t happen overnight but being aware of the context is an important first step. Remember that we are all trying our best.”

Contact: [email protected]


Jennifer Erb-Downward is a senior research associate at U-M’s Poverty Solutions who studies child and family homelessness. Her research explores the connections between student homelessness and school discipline rates, academic proficiency, graduation and dropout rates, chronic absenteeism, receipt of public assistance, and placement in the foster care system. Research shows students who experience homelessness struggle more than their housed peers—and these challenges persist even after stable housing is found. However, there are exceptions to this overarching trend, which indicates schools’ responses can make a difference for students who have been homeless.

“Before the pandemic, schools struggled to identify students experiencing homelessness, and this task became even more difficult in a virtual school environment,” she said. “The American Rescue Plan includes $800 million for identifying and supporting students experiencing homelessness, which offers schools a new opportunity to connect families with resources that could fundamentally end their homelessness.”

Contact: [email protected]


Elizabeth Birr Moje is dean of the School of Education, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and the George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Education. Her research examines how young people navigate culture, identity and literacy learning in and out of school in Detroit.

“Educators are facing many of the same challenges and uncertainties as they were in fall of 2020. With many schools offering both in-person and virtual learning environments, and public health guidance frequently shifting based on current COVID-19 data, teachers are called on to remain flexible, creative and dynamic,” she said. “Teachers will enter the semester by assessing the varying needs of their students even more rigorously than before and then designing learning opportunities to meet those needs.

“In an effort to support educators, we’ve developed free professional development modules with funding from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund for Michigan, part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The modules address topics related to inclusive teaching and learning.

“These new PD modules, which will be available in the coming semester, seek to address the urgent needs of Michigan teachers, administrators, and staff by providing training on research-based practices and strategies through convenient modules on important topics such as inquiry-based teaching and learning online informed by disciplinary literacy instruction and culturally sustaining pedagogies; trauma-based practice in online education informed by anti-racist teaching and culturally sustaining pedagogies; and inclusive online teaching for English learners. Although each module is focused on ‘online’ education, the concepts and skills developed will be applicable to in-person and hybrid formats.”

Contact: Danielle Dimcheff, 734-834-0409, [email protected]

Liz Kolb, clinical associate professor of education technologies at the School of Education, can address how teachers can continue to use what they learned during remote and hybrid learning to teach using online methods. Kolb can share her findings on emergency remote learning and one-to-one devices in schools, especially around issues of equity and access for K-12 students and teachers. She can also share a model she has created called HyperDocs, digital documents that give teens everything they need weekly in one place, while promoting community building and well-being.

“Emergency remote learning has allowed us to better understand the importance of schools providing a high quality device for their students for more equitable learning experiences and better continuity of learning between school and home life experiences,” she said. “Furthermore, blended learning is not going away, and it is important for better teacher preparation around blending traditional in-person learning with online learning tools and experiences, in order for education to effectively move forward.”

Contact: 734-649-2563, [email protected]


Marisa Eisenberg is an associate professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health. Her research focuses on modeling infectious disease, and she is part of the team that developed and updates the state’s MI Safe Start Map.

“We’re adding the CDC transmission levels and links to guidance to MI Safe Start Map to help school administrators and parents understand the levels in their community when assessing risk and making decisions for their school,” she said.

Contact: Nardy Baeza Bickel, 734-763-0368, [email protected]

Joshua Petrie is a research assistant professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health. His research focuses on the transmission of respiratory virus infections. He is currently collaborating on several CDC and NIH-funded studies of influenza vaccine effectiveness in inpatient, outpatient and community settings.

Contact: Nardy Baeza Bickel, 734-763-0368, [email protected]

Tammy Chang, assistant professor of family medicine at the Medical School, runs the MyVoice national poll of youth aged 14 to 24, and has studied youth attitudes toward COVID-19-related topics including vaccination. She is also an adolescent medicine specialist at Michigan Medicine and can speak on the role of young people in the pandemic, the importance of starting the COVID-19 vaccination process before school starts, and the current knowledge about vaccine efficacy and reactions in youth.

“This year, getting ready for school means more than just pencils and notebooks. Vaccinating students helps us all get back to our normal lives and keeps everyone safer,” she said. “That’s why we hope everyone will get the facts and include vaccination in their back-to-school plans. Now’s the time to start, because it takes time for the vaccine to teach your immune system to recognize and fight the coronavirus.”

Contact: Kara Gavin, [email protected]

Kevin Gregg is a clinical associate professor of infectious disease at Michigan Medicine, and can address transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus as well as how the Delta variant is playing a role in the ongoing pandemic.

“Numerous studies during the initial waves of the pandemic have shown that when students and teachers wear masks, transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is reduced,” he said. “Unfortunately, despite vaccination now being available to those over 12 years old, there is a substantial population of school-age children that are not yet eligible for the vaccine and there is also a more transmissible variant circulating throughout the country. With cases rising in all states, it is prudent to continue masking of students, staff and teachers in schools until case rates improve and younger children have the chance to be vaccinated.”

Contact: Kelly Malcom, [email protected]

Amanda Valyko is director of infection prevention and epidemiology at Michigan Medicine.

“Vaccination and masking are key prevention strategies, and are particularly important now that the Delta variant, which is at least twice as contagious as previous variants, is circulating,” she said. “Children under 12 are not currently vaccinated and vaccination rates among eligible children are relatively low. Masking in indoor public spaces, including in schools, will be a crucial strategy to prevent COVID in kids as school resumes.”

Contact: Kelly Malcom, [email protected]


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