Teachers across the state have been scrambling to find ways to stay connected with their students virtually since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered that all schools be closed, starting March 16 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some teachers were already doing some online learning, so the switch was fairly easy.

But others, like Amy Perkins, were almost total newbies.

“I’m learning as I go,” said the history teacher from Lakeshore High School in Stevensville. “This is a lot like being a first year teacher all over again.”

She said it helps that the Lakeshore school district provides Chromebooks to all middle and high school students. Perkins said she doesn’t have all of the resources and technology at her house that she needs, but she’s figuring it out.

“You’re really adapting every day, trying to meet the needs of your students, so it’s requiring a lot of creativity and growth,” she said.

And it requires cooperation. Perkins said she couldn’t have done it without help from an online community of teachers and from her students.

“It’s a very collaborative learning experience for the students, who are sharing with me information that they’re aware of,” she said. “Our students are so tech savvy. This is an opportunity for them to be more of a partner in the learning experience.”

Perkins has used many platforms, including Google Docs, Zoom and Netflix Party, to share her knowledge of history with her students.

“So we can review together, even though we’re isolated in quarantine,” Perkins said.

Christy Sloan, an English teacher at Lakeshore High School, said she is also new to online learning.

Sloan said it’s vital that teachers stay connected with their students during this time.

“They need this. They have to have something to think about and focus on because this is strange for them,” she said. “It’s strange for all of us.”

Shelly Archer, a second-grade teacher at Mars Elementary School in Berrien Springs, said she decided to create a plan using smartphones, since some of her students don’t have access to computers.

“I wanted this environment to be safe for parents and their children, so I created a private Facebook page called: Archer’s Sensational Second Graders,” she said in an email.

Archer said she posts videos of learning challenges, with her students able to upload video responses. She also sent her students on a virtual field trip to the San Diego Zoo through Sandiegozoo.org, where there are several tours and live cams of 11 animals.

“I encouraged them to ... share on our Facebook page what animals they liked and why,” she said.

Motivating students

Michigan teachers need to find different ways to engage their students, since state officials have said the online work may not count toward the number of hours required for this school year. Local teachers said the activities they are doing with their students are for enrichment.

“The goal is to keep them motivated, keep them interested, so what we’re teaching them has to be engaging and has to be relevant in their lives,” Perkins said.

However, the situation is in flux, as the governor said Friday that it is “unlikely” that schools will reopen this school year, and that final decision will be made soon.

Bridgman Superintendent Shane Peters said this is a wake up call to state legislators that the state’s education system needs to modernize.

“As I look at our friends in Indiana, they’ve been doing e-learning for years,” Peters said. “When they have a snow day, they call it an ‘e-learning day.’”

Adam Baker, press secretary for the Indiana Department of Education, said his state started e-learning in 2011. There is even an office of e-learning in the education department that shares information with school districts.

Baker said e-learning is not mandated but in the past few years, there has been a surge in districts adding it.

Peters said what state leaders in Lansing decide about students receiving credit for the online learning is up to them. He said learning is always important and his district won’t stop teaching the students.

“Here in Bridgman, I feel as a leader that we have that moral and ethical obligation to provide learning to kids if we’re out three weeks or 30 weeks,” he said. “That’s our job as public educators.”

Peters said Bridgman students already have electronic devices to learn on from the school district. For students without an internet connection, he said they gave them mobile hot spots.

“I have a child in high school,” he said. “It is truly remarkable what these teachers have been able to accomplish in these last eight to 10 days. I cannot verbalize how impressed I am with these professionals taking their lessons and their plans and changing it remotely within hours. These are heroes as well. They’re taking some anxiety away from families right now because we’re keeping kids in their routines.”

Keeping life somewhat normal

Besides motivation, another goal of online learning in Michigan is to add an element of normalcy to the students’ lives, Peters said.

“These are unprecedented times for all of us,” he said. “How do we take care of kids who are struggling with what’s going on in our world because as big people, we struggle with it because we don’t know. As much normalcy we can bring to them, I think it helps make this a better situation.”

Lakeshore Superintendent Phil Freeman said that while his district’s middle and high school students already had electronic devices they could use at home that were provided by the school district, the elementary students did not.

Freeman said elementary students who needed a device were able to borrow them, and some were set up with mobile hot spots, he said.

“We’ve handed out over 100 devices to make sure they had the same access as everyone else,” he said.

Freeman said it’s important for students to stay in the routine of learning.

“This is going to end at some point,” he said. “We need to be ready and we need to get out the message that learning’s important.”

Freeman said some teachers have been using the internet to “flip” classes for years.

He said “flipping” a class means that the students watch the lesson at home on their computer and then do what is traditionally assigned as homework at school, where they can talk about it with their teacher.

“You have the support of a teacher while you’re working through your problems,” he said. “You have the expert right next to you.”

High school seniors

Kelly Gaideski, director of curriculum and instruction at St. Joseph Public Schools, said she’s been working with Lake Michigan College to figure out how the high school students taking direct credit classes at the high school can still receive college credit for the classes.

She said LMC instructors have switched to online learning but so far, it is unknown what the state Legislature is going to allow local school districts to do.

“Ohio just recently voted in some educational reprieves,” she said. “So there’s a model out there that maybe will lead (Michigan legislators) to taking that action. It’s an uncertain time and they’ve got a lot on their plate as well.”

Gaideski said students in advanced placement classes will still be able to take the AP test for possible college credit. She said College Board, which handles the AP classes, is developing online tests that can be taken at home that are estimated to take around 45 minutes to complete.

Meanwhile, Gaideski is also working with the district’s teachers at all grade levels as they work on remotely connecting with their students.

“It’s an unchartered time but wow, have educators everywhere stepped up and really gone above and beyond, even with the limitations, to try to help students stay connected,” she said. “That’s the key. They’re connected. They’re still learning. They’re still curious. I’m just amazed and overwhelmed. Literally, we shut down schools in a matter of hours and what our teachers have done during this time, it’s heartwarming.”

Preparing for closure

Freeman said many Berrien County superintendents have been preparing for the possible closure of schools since Feb. 25, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced that schools may need shut down to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“We took it seriously,” he said. “Right away, we started using our school safety plans to put together the shell of a document on what to consider.”

Freeman said he sent out instructions to teachers on March 3 that they should submit their plans on how they were going to teach remotely by March 13. Freeman said he asked that their plans be for 10 days.

“Then, as you know, the governor made her announcement that she was closing schools on March 12,” he said.

The initial announcement called for schools to be closed until April 5. That order was later extended to April 13.

Freeman said several superintendents still meet virtually every day around noon to support each other and share information.

“This is a pretty stressful time for everybody,” he said. “It is really nice to bounce ideas off other professionals.”

New on the job

Benton Harbor Superintendent Andrae Townsel, who started on Feb. 17, said he’s been impressed by how supportive area superintendents are and at how professional the Benton Harbor staff has been.

He said that all students now have electronic devices to work on and if they have internet problems, staff is taking care of them.

“Everyone is doing a phenomenal job,” he said.

When asked if his first month as superintendent has been rough, Townsel said he tries to stay positive.

“I’m just thankful to be able to serve,” he said.

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege