Virtual Learning Spells Uncertainty for Many KPS Students
Uncertainty is tough. And right now, we are all feeling like we are in the dark about one of the most, if not THE most, important aspects of our lives: our kids’ education. While Kalamazoo Public Schools has been hurriedly working to develop a Continuity of Learning plan as required by the state of Michigan, communication from the district has sometimes fallen short of the expectations of the community. We need reassurance, we want certainty, and we want it now. Unfortunately, for the past month information about how we’ll handle remote instruction during this crisis has come at a trickle. Answers to our questions are delayed, instructions are unclear, and new information might even contradict the previous. We’re not sure what is going on, or what we’re supposed to do, other than sit tight and trust that “the system” – from the state level down to our local school administrators, are making the right decisions. That’s a difficult position for families to be in right now. As a parent of five kids in this district, I’m right there with you. And as a school board member who has been kept at arms’ length by KPS administration this past month, I feel powerless, inadequate, and angry.
It is now Sunday evening, April 19th. By now you (and I) have received phone calls or emails from teachers, robocalls from principals, and read various statements from the district on the KPS website and social media, we’ve gotten letters through the mail, and read local news stories reporting on the district’s Continuity of Learning plan. Yet here we are, on the eve before the grand experiment is set to begin in earnest, and there is still so much we don’t know.
While it isn’t the only worry we have right now, access to technology is a primary concern for students and families in Kalamazoo when it comes to remote learning. That concern is, purportedly, shared at the district level: From board members to admins to teachers to support staff, KPS is acutely aware that many of our children do not have devices at home that would allow them to take advantage of virtual schooling. But what is being done about it?
So far the district has distributed over 1,200 Chromebooks to students. That’s a big number, but in a high poverty district such as ours with somewhere around 13,000 students, it isn’t nearly enough. While at one point I was confident that the district would, as I had been led to believe, be able to provide Chromebooks to all students who need them, as of now there is no definitive plan or promise to do so. There will likely be announcements from KPS in the coming days about when and who laptops will be made available to next.
While Kalamazoo Public Schools administration works out the logistics of laptop distribution, an even trickier aspect of online learning is the issue of internet access. Understandably, the district is not funded or equipped to address this need single-handedly. I have been informed that they (district administrators) are working with community partners to explore ideas and find support. No one has the answers to these challenges yet. As scary as that is, it is also understandable. KPS is contending with inequity on a whole new playing field, under the worst of circumstances, with limited resources and manpower.
What troubles me most about the district’ rollout of its remote learning plan is that despite obvious disparities in access, the vast majority of information coming out of KPS has been focused almost entirely on online learning – virtual class schedules have been posted, along with online behavior expectations, google classroom login instructions, encouragement to connect with teachers via emails. The official announcement on the KPS website relating to the initial phase of the Continuity of Learning plan contains only a single sentence about offline resources (notice that printed packets will continue to be distributed at food sites), and an enthusiastic robocall from one of my own kids’ principals this evening provided information about virtual learning exclusively – no acknowledgment was given to students who would be unable to use those online tools, and direction was given to parents on how to obtain printed materials or who to call with concerns about access. What message does this send?
An equitable education plan isn’t just about whether or not we provide laptops and internet service – it’s about communication, and public affirmation of ALL of our students. All of the time.
Solutions or no, this silence on behalf of school administrators minimizes the experiences of poor families in Kalamazoo and speaks volumes about our values: promote the good, while the rest gets swept under the rug to maintain an image that will appeal to affluent families and keep those enrollment numbers up.
Kalamazoo deserves better. Universal access to technology would be ideal, but it isn’t realistic, at least not in short order. What is realistic, and what is needed right now, is concrete information on what is expected of students who won’t be able to log in, a robust distribution plan for printed materials (beyond generic packets currently only available at food sites) that mirror what is being presented to electronically, and the promise that no child will be held back or fail to graduate as a result of their not being able to participate with their class online. This message needs to be shared publicly and repeatedly, just as loudly as the district touts their virtual plans.
In the meantime, I can only offer this reassurance to the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, big siblings or whoever you are to the children you care for: It is your support and encouragement that your kids need right now, far more than anything contained in a Google classroom. Keep your focus on loving them, and don’t let anyone make you feel like that’s not enough.