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After Michigan school closure, switch to online learning could leave rural families behind

Max Johnston
Interlochen Public Radio

The coronavirus pandemic means Michigan schools are closed for the rest of the academic year.

Many districts are switching to online learning and it’s a big adjustment. It’s also a gamble because some families may not be able to access it.

School is still in session

Mike Hammar is a math teacher at Benzie Central High School. On Tuesday he grabbed some pens and prepared his notes for lecture. Hammar’s Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus students entered class via Google Hangout.

Online classrooms like this are the new normal for Michigan schools after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer suspended in-person learning for the rest of the school year.

That means Hammar, who’s been teaching for over 20 years, has to learn a few things too.

"It’s kind of like I’m a brand new teacher who just got my first teaching job," he said. "It’s that same feel, you’re just thrown into the fire and you just make it work.”

His calculus students still have to take the A.P. test in May. So for over two hours every Tuesday and Thursday Hammar goes over practice problems using his wife’s webcam.

Reaching rural families

While school districts pivot to online learning they’re worried some families may be left behind.

Technology Director for the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District (TBAISD) Brandi Reynolds said up to 25 percent of families in the state don’t have internet access.

And she says it’s not just a question of affordability, as rural parts of the state don’t have the infrastructure to get online.

"You could say 'yes I have a Verizon Hotspot,' but if your Verizon Hotspot (only has) one bar and you have more family members at home trying to access and work from home currently, that’s really difficult to get anything efficiently accomplished," Reynolds said.


Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
TBAISD would like to equip the district's buses with mobile hotspots

The TBAISD works with local businesses to expand connectivity in schools, but infrastructure to get families connected is outside of their control, Reynolds said. The district wants to put mobile hotspots on buses and drive them out to rural areas, but Reynolds said that is not going to happen soon.

"Everything is back ordered," Reynolds said. "Right now we’re hearing from Verizon that access to a Hotspot through our educational accounts is about three months out.”

Even when families are connected, Professor of Computer Technology at Ball State David Hua said online learning is a big adjustment.

"The teaching and the learning that is taking place in the classroom doesn’t automatically transition effectively into that online environment," Hua said.

Also Hua says most online learning plans are designed to last a few weeks, not forever.

Under Whitmer's executive order, Michigan schools have until April 28 to implement their online curriculums. For families with poor internet access, Benzie Central Schools is offering educational packets and have already given out 100 Google Chromebooks.

It's not the same

Hammar will hold his lessons twice a week for the next month. Hammar said the transition online has gone pretty smoothly, but it’s no replacement for the classroom.

"Seeing the look on their face when kids 'get it,'" Hammar said. "That face-to-face interaction, that’s what teaching’s about," Hammar said.

Max came to IPR in 2017 as an environmental intern. In 2018, he returned to the station as a reporter and quickly took on leadership roles as Interim News Director and eventually Assignment Editor. Before joining IPR, Max worked as a news director and reporter at Michigan State University's student radio station WDBM. In 2018, he reported on a Title IX dispute with MSU in his story "Prompt, Thorough and Impartial." His work has also been heard on Michigan Radio, WDBM and WKAR in East Lansing and NPR.