School is a lot different today than when Lansing Superintendent Sam Sinicropi became an educator almost five decades ago.
What used to be a place solely dedicated to learning is now a haven providing social and emotional support to students, as well as basic needs like food, shelter and safety.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, not everyone fully recognized the needs schools fill for K-12 children, the Lansing Public Schools superintendent said. In forcing schools to move online – pulling students out of the classroom – COVID-19 has helped communities understand the full impact.
“There is more recognition of what schools do for students and families. I mean, we’re doing more – from providing meals to families, to doing more about mental health issues or counseling,” said Sinicropi, who oversees more than 10,000 students.
The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has changed almost every aspect of society, and education is no exception. But many Michigan educators say even when the pandemic is over and things go “back to normal,” there are changes that will remain.
Public perception of schools is one of them that will endure for years to come, Sinicropi said.
“As we go forward, I think we are going to see a much greater respect for educators in general for what they provide every day,” he said.
Another long-lasting change is the integration of online learning into regular curriculum. Many Michigan schools opted for online-only learning this fall to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including major public school districts like Lansing, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo.
While nothing can replicate the benefits of in-person learning, schools have discovered there are some positive aspects of online education too, said Godfrey-Lee Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Polston.
“I think what we found is, technology is a tool to support teaching and learning,” Polston said. “I think there are great plugins for it throughout the K-12 continuum.”
Online learning gives students more flexibility to complete assignments and learn at their own pace, the Grand Rapids-area superintendent said. Future education will likely have a more blended learning curriculum, giving students more opportunities for learning outside of the typical 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day, Polston said.
“So what I do see is more opportunities, especially in secondary school, for blended learning with a portion of in-person and a portion of virtual, where we can still get collaboration among students, we can still get teachers interacting with students but also students engaging in the community.”
The integration of online learning works especially well for high school students, giving them flexibility in their curriculum similar to the structure of college-level courses, Sinicropi said.
“As we look at the three high schools in Lansing, they all run their own schedules with students and in that respect it could be much like a college-level (schedule) in the future,” he said. “I think that we can, as a state and country, pool our ideas together and find some pretty amazing things we can make work (after the pandemic).”
But with more online learning also comes the exposure of Michigan’s digital divide.
Systemic gaps in technology access among school districts around the state left thousands of students at a disadvantage this year, despite efforts by educators to fulfill short-term connectivity needs during virtual learning.
Polston said he thinks the pandemic has opened the door to addressing technology inequities in their districts – potentially with the help of funding from tax millages or state funding.
“I hope we are setting the stage for a structural change to how we fund and resource our schools, not just with the per-pupil count but also how we look at inequities,” Polston said.
“If a district has a technology bond that’s funded through a millage, then they don’t have to use operating dollars for those types of things.”
The pandemic has opened the doors for better funding of public schools for things like internet connectivity and technology for online learning in the future, Bangor Public Schools Superintendent Matt Schmidt said.
“It’s really costly to provide internet hotspots and 1-to-1 technology to students, but all of the sudden in the middle of a pandemic, the state and federal government was able to find the money to give districts to make it happen,” Schmidt said. “And in my mind, it shouldn’t take a pandemic to do that.
“If we’re servicing our students and providing them with a high-quality education, we should have the resources and the money to help our kids, and it shouldn’t take a pandemic to do that.”
After the pandemic is over, Sinicropi said the key to better education in the future is making sure no one forgets about the technology inequities across Michigan exposed by the COVID-19 crisis.
“I think we’re doing a fairly decent job of making sure the connectivity is there for all of our families, but once we go back to normal – whatever normal will look like, you know, eight months from now – we can’t forget what got us there in the first place,” Sinicropi said.
Polston likened navigating the coronavirus pandemic to a dense forest, with each tree representing day-to-day obstacles, and the overall forest representing the systemic inequities exposed by the pandemic.
“We are all trying to manage the pandemic, and while we’re intensely aware of the trees, we’ve also got to look at the forest,” he said. “We’re all trying to get through day-to-day survival, but there’s also these broader systemic issues that we have to make sure we keep an eye on.”
“If we really want to make sure we don’t replicate the challenges we experienced during COVID, we have to learn from that.”
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