Digital Divide: How parents, teachers are preparing to navigate online classrooms

Parents have a tough choice ahead: Keep kids in school, or enroll them in virtual academy
Posted at 4:20 AM, Jul 31, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-31 07:11:24-04

DETROIT (WXYZ) — Angel Marino is a DPSCD parent, who's been working on the front lines as an essential healthcare worker since the pandemic started. When it comes to online learning, she has concerns.

“I cannot see how it’s going to work for me," she said.

Marino would like to be able to stay home with her kids and help them navigate a virtual classroom. However, as a working parent who relied on school programs for childcare, it's not in the cards.

Two of Marino's kids have learning challenges, and her son is just in kindergarten; she's worried about him catching up in an online setting.

“We’re very concerned about our health and our kids but when the world heals and the pandemic is over, where are we going to be?" Marino said.

Returning to face-to-face instruction for voluntary summer school within DPSCD sparked several days of protests. Those in opposition feel face-to-face learning puts kids and teachers at risk. The district's superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti said the decision to offer face-to-face learning as an option this summer was in response to a district need for it, and that around 2,000 families indicated they wanted face-to-face instruction.

As for the fall, the district is asking parents to complete a survey indicating which learning style they're prefer. Here is the district's current re-opening plan for September.

Marino disagreed with the protests over face-to-face summer school, and felt they didn't take into account the challenges working parents face.

Liz Kolb is a clinical associate professor of teacher education at the University of Michigan. She said navigating an online classroom, especially for younger kids, may require additional attention from parents or guardians.

"Most younger students do not have the fine motor skills and the ability to navigate independently through the learning tools," Kolb said.

Kolb said recent studies show that blended learning, both face-to-face and online, is proving to be the most effective for students.

DPSCD provided free wireless tablets to students for the purpose of online learning. In addition, the district "is providing 6 months of free internet service activated upon pick up of their device," said a district spokesperson.

Following the six months of free service, the District plans to partner with the City of Detroit and the social enterprise non-profit, Human IT, to help families sign up for low-cost subsidized internet services, per DPSCD's website.

While Marino's kids have devices and access to internet, she's worried about their ability to keep up if a teacher isn't in the room with them providing guidance.

And the computer literacy question applies not only to students and parents but also to teachers.

DPSCD high school teacher Torrie Anderson is confident in her ability to create an effective online classroom, but said it's going to be difficult for many teacher who were trained to teach face-to-face.

Under Michigan's MI Safe Return to School Roadmap, phase 4 of re-opening strongly recommends districts "Activate hybrid learning programs at scale to deliver standards-aligned curricula and high-quality instructional materials."

At this point, most metro Detroit districts are planning for a mixture of in-person and virtual learning options.

Anderson said parental involvement in online learning will be key to its success.

“For me it would be moreso getting those social contracts from parents. Actually placing phone calls, talking to parents, saying hey I need your child online this many hours per week," Anderson told Action News.

And if Michigan moves back into phase three of re-opening, in-person instruction would not be allowed. The prospect concerns Marino greatly.

“Eventually I’m literally going to have to consider my work," she said.

Anderson is also concerned about her safety, lack of hazard pay, and whether or not she'll be able to teach totally remote.

“My biggest concern number one is that there won’t be options for teachers to either apply to teach virtual school or face-to-face. That decision seems like it will be made for us," Anderson told Action News.