ANN ARBOR – University of Michigan leaders’ responses to the Michigan governor’s plan to close schools for the remainder of the year while continuing to educate students points out the issues impacting school districts nationwide. Education is not equitable, and students in homes with fewer resources and opportunities can’t just move to online learning.
Intermediate school districts across Michigan are expected this week to begin reviewing the plans individual districts have submitted for educating children online, on paper or in whatever ways make sense in individual communities.
U-M experts can discuss these and other challenges facing the nation’s K-12 schools.
Elizabeth Birr Moje is dean of the School of Education 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.
“Gov. Whitmer’s difficult decision to close schools for the remainder of the school year is a necessary precaution in our current crisis,” she said. “We applaud the teachers and administrators who are working with great ingenuity and skill to serve students and families, and we have been in touch with many Michigan teachers to support their transition to online education.
“Many people are asking what the impact of closing schools for the remainder of the year will be. It is difficult to say with precision, but we all have to admit that there will be losses—big losses. Although there can be no doubt that taking children out of school will have an impact, we also know that children are resilient.
“Opportunities to learn are not equitably distributed in our society. Inequities in access to education, to technology tools and to the basic needs required for all to thrive—housing, food, safety—have always been present in our society. The current pandemic is laying bare those massive inequities. It is important not to exacerbate these inequities, which is why the decision to close schools and to move students forward in the coming year without requiring additional seat time makes sense. And now is a good time for us to examine these issues and commit ourselves to redressing them.”
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Nell Duke, professor of literacy, language, and culture at the School of Education, focuses on early literacy development, particularly among children living in 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.
“Our highest priority right now—above academic learning—needs to be the emotional and physical well-being of our students,” she said. “Many children will experience trauma as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, from just hearing about the pandemic, the death of loved ones, the experience of confinement, child abuse and neglect—which is on the rise—economic uncertainty and other factors. Schools should prioritize social emotional and physical support in their plans.
“Efforts to continue learning remotely highlight inequities in infrastructure that should have been addressed long before there was a pandemic. Community-wide Wi-Fi programs ensure that all students and others in a community have access to high-speed internet, but few communities have such a program. One-on-one digital device programs in districts ensure that all students have a digital device that enables learning, but few districts have such programs. As districts work to make their remote learning plans now, they will have to contend with these inequities. Some districts are using creative work-arounds, such as parking school buses that send out a wide Wi-Fi net in areas where many schoolchildren live.”
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Liz Kolb, clinical associate professor of education technologies at the School of Education, can talk about the readiness of the nation’s teachers for online learning and how many students could be left out if districts have to teach via technology over the long haul. She also can discuss how to train teachers to teach online, and recently launched an online certification for teachers, technology coaches and administrators.
“Gov. Whitmer’s executive order closed schools for the rest of the year and allowed the students to matriculate. The order also asked each school district to develop a remote learning plan for the rest of the school year,” she said. “As a result, each K-12 district is grappling with how to provide instructional resources and/or enrichment remotely so that it is accessible to all their students.The COVID pandemic closing schools has brought the issue of the digital divide and access to technology tools to the forefront of American society—pushing Americans to finally answer the question, ‘Is digital access a civil right?'”
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Julia Wolfson is an assistant professor of health management and policy at the School of Public Health. Her research focuses on food literacy/food agency, implementation of cooking skills education and nutrition assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“Closing schools for a long period of time has the potential to seriously exacerbate disparities between lower- and higher-income students,” she said. “Low-income students depend on schools for food and nutrition (up to 2/3 of their daily food intake), so long-term solutions to provide food to students who need it should be a priority.
“Students who don’t have access to the internet, computers or other ways to access digital content will be at a serious disadvantage. So it is imperative that the state and local school districts figure out how to ensure that all students have the ability to continue learning during this time.
Roshanak Mehdipanah is an assistant professor of health behavior and health education at the School of Public Health who has published in the areas of urban renewal, housing and policies aimed at eliminating health inequalities.
“Adequate housing is not an option for all, and for some students being at school is the only time they have to learn,” she said. “For some that do have homes, these homes could be in inadequate conditions from overcrowding to lack of access to utilities, including electricity and water. Some may not have internet or access to online learning. For some, a house may not even be an option. The intersects of housing and education will exacerbate existing learning/education inequities. And in the future those kids will have difficulties in catching up on missed school work.
Pamela Davis-Kean, a professor of psychology and a research professor at the Institute for Social Research, can discuss the various pathways that the socioeconomic status of parents relates to the cognitive/achievement outcomes of their children.
“The achievement gap is defined by the socioeconomic differences in the United States—the differences are even more apparent when the instruction that should be done in the schools is sent home (e.g., homework),” she said. “Higher-educated parents already provide a more enriched learning environment for their children through play and reading activities. They are also more connected to resources or actively seek them out.
“Lower-income and lower-educated parents don’t have the flexibility in their work schedule and often struggle to make these enrichment activities available. They are also not well connected to networks that provide resources of learning (e.g., libraries, extracurricular math, reading programs). It is highly likely we will see much larger achievement gaps due to the lack of learning opportunities available to children in many home environments.”
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Written by Laurel Thomas