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COVID Kids: Schools will have to battle lost learning, social skills this fall

News Photo by Crystal Nelson Alpena resident Alexander McDonald plays a video game at his home.

ALPENA — Educators in Northeast Michigan are concerned about the impact the coronavirus pandemic will have on children, who thrive on routines and depend on schools to provide them with both academic support and socio-emotional learning.

About seven months into the last academic year, schools were forced to close because of the pandemic, disrupting the daily routines of school-age children and their families.

Tricia Grifka, early childhood services director at the Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency, said children get a sense of safety from routine because they know what’s coming next and it creates a calmer environment.

The pandemic, which forced the closure of not just schools, but parks, playgrounds, restaurants, and more, disrupted those routines.

Likewise, educators know kids fall behind academically, especially in mathematics, when students are taken out of school for long periods of time, such as summer break, or during traumatic events like Hurricane Katrina, said David Crim, communications consultant with the Michigan Education Association.

News Photo by Crystal Nelson Alpena resident Lorilee Vanderveer is pictured earlier this month at her home on M-32.

Educators expect the pandemic to have similar — if not worse — effects.

And many Alpena students already were behind their peers.

Before the pandemic, Alpena Public Schools’ attendance rate was about 82%, lower than the 93% statewide rate, according to state data from the 2018-19 academic year. And students at APS’ elementary and junior high schools lagged behind their peers statewide on statewide tests.

Schools offered online classes during the tail end of last school year and plan to offer a blend of online and in-person courses this school year, but, for many students, online learning can’t replace a teacher in front of them and peers around them in a school building.

Alpena resident Lorilee Vanderveer, who has two children with special needs, said she was able to stay home when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer closed schools and businesses to prevent the spread of the virus. She was able to help her kids with some of their online learning, but, because she is not a special education teacher, Vanderveer said, she sometimes had a difficult time.

News Photo by Crystal Nelson Alpena resident Natosha McDonald sits with her daughter, Liliana, in their home.

“I’m good with kids — I’m patient — but I’m not a teacher. I am not a special ed teacher,” Vanderveer said. “My hat goes off to homeschooling parents, because I don’t think I could do it. I’ve tried it, and it’s a little crazy.”

‘MIND THE GAP’

Crim, of the MEA, said educators will continue “to mind the gap.”

Even prior to the pandemic, there was a gap in academic proficiency between “the haves and have nots” — the rich and the poor, and those who have the internet and those who don’t — and the pandemic could exacerbate those gaps.

“The emotional and mental health of kids, as a result of the pandemic, is going to suffer,” Crim said. “No one disputes that, and we know COVID-19 will widen the social-economic gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged students.”

News Photo by Crystal Nelson Meaghan Gauthier, Alpena Public Schools assistant superintendent for instruction, is pictured here.

Data from the Michigan League for Public Policy shows about 23% of children in Alpena County live in poverty and 17% of those children are also food-insecure, meaning they often don’t get enough to eat. Children in Alcona, Montmorency, and Presque Isle counties struggle even more.

Meaghan Gauthier, Alpena Public Schools assistant superintendent for instruction, said schools were notified on March 13 they needed to close because of the pandemic. It wasn’t until 23 school days later, after receiving direction from the state, that academic instruction would pick up in a new, online format.

Check out a video below of parents talking about the struggles of the pandemic. Viewing on mobile? Turn your device horizontally for the best viewing experience. Story continues below video.

However, the state did not require students to participate in those programs, and allowed students to move on to the next grade if they were on pace to do so before the outbreak. Gauthier said some families chose not to participate — and some families couldn’t be reached.

“Families are kind of all over the board as far as how much they were able to continue with virtual learning,” Grifka, of NEMCSA, said.

To catch students up this fall, Crim said, teachers have to figure out ways to provide individualized learning to reflect where each child is academically.

“This makes the teachers’ job much more difficult,” he said.

‘MAKING CONNECTIONS’

School officials are equally concerned about how students are doing socially and emotionally during the pandemic

Although preschool-aged children may not know the details of the pandemic, they do recognize something is different based on changes in their routines, Grifka said. Children might realize they aren’t leaving the house seeing family members as much as they used to.

And “children don’t learn as well from watching a video as they do from watching a real-life person interacting — that engagement is really, really important,” she said.

Grifka said children may exhibit challenging behaviors during the pandemic, such as sleeping or eating disruptions, becoming withdrawn, or suffering from separation anxiety because they have been home so many months without going out.

An interactive graphic of local student achievement data. Story continues below graphic.

Alpena resident Natosha McDonald said social and emotional skills are most important for her 12-year-old son, Fate, to succeed in school.

McDonald, who has three children, said Fate has special needs and used to attend speech class one to two times a week, but he only met with the instructor two or three times in the three months he was out of school, each session lasting about 15 minutes.

“That was probably the most frustrating for us, because he wasn’t receiving the education he really needs,” she said, noting he will also head into junior high next year and missed out on the year-end tour the district usually holds to help students transition into the sixth grade.

‘INVESTED IN OUR TEACHERS’

Heading into the new academic year, school officials are busy finalizing plans to deliver a quality education for students whether they attend class in-person or learn online.

Students who attend NEMCSA’s Head Start program will learn new routines this year, such as parents checking them into school in the morning without entering their child’s classroom.

APS officials are prepared to send each child home with a Chromebook laptop so they can continue their education remotely, if needed, and parents and students will be able to practice online learning and learn about routines that will make them more successful when learning outside a school building.

Gauthier said APS trained teachers to teach in blended classrooms, where online education and traditional classroom teaching are both used.

“We’ve been invested in our teachers and their professional learning so they can start to learn and grow in those areas, and so we’ll be better equipped, hopefully, if we have to go into remote learning again,” Gauthier said.

Crim, of the MEA, expects students to take longer to catch up than after a typical summer break, and teachers will have to account for that.

Teachers also will have to cope with the emotional hit students have taken during the outbreak.

“On top of students losing some of their academic skills and what they learned pre-pandemic, teachers are going to have to deal with kids who are depressed and have a hard time concentrating on their lessons because of what they have gone through,” he said.

Crystal Nelson can be reached at 989-358-5687 or cnelson@thealpenanews.com.

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