Distant learning kicked off this week for many Michigan schools in compliance with Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order signed April 2 that suspended face-to-face learning at K-12 schools for the remainder of the school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Shortly after the order, school districts across the state were instructed to develop and have in place a distant learning plan for students by April 28. However, before guidelines on best practices for developing a plan were issued, leadership within Grand Valley State University’s Charter Schools Office called on its educators to think critically and be innovative in their approach.
On March 30, Robert Kimball, Associate Vice President for Charter Schools at GVSU, penned an open letter to school leaders and board members urging them to think critically about the future of educating in the likeliness that schools would remain closed for the duration of the school year.
“Governor Whitmer has indicated that she expects to provide clarity on the school calendar and provide direction to us soon,” Kimball wrote. “In the interim, it’s critical that you consider answers to the following questions: Is my current distance learning plan sustainable? Is my current distance learning plan equitable? Are all staff members engaged in supporting instruction and families? What changes would need to be made to continue beyond April 13?”
Grand Valley State University currently authorizes 80 charter public schools throughout Michigan, including nine in the Grand Rapids-area and eight along the Lakeshore – serving approximately 34,000 students. As schools begin implementing state-mandated distant learning plans this week, Kimball tells Rapid Growth Media that GVSU charter schools have kept education moving forward since the earliest days of the pandemic.
“The moment it became evident that how teaching occurred was going to change,” says Kimball, “Our schools pivoted to offering instruction in diverse and innovative ways —online, through packets, and blended approaches — to reach all students.”
One of its charter schools, William C. Abney Academy Elementary, began offering virtual experiences for its students mid-March, almost immediately after learning that the school would have to remain closed until at least April 13. In response, Abney launched an online platform called Abney Academic Extension to which the school shared on its Facebook page as a website of academic resources for its Abney family. Family is a central theme among GVSU charter schools and Kimball says it plays a significant part in efforts to improve a student’s learning opportunity.
“Our schools’ ability to further student learning stems, in part, from the value they place in developing strong connections with families,” says Kimball. “Those deep connections allow the educators to find the best blend of resources and support that families need.”
Since Michigan schools are to remain closed for the duration of the academic year, Kimball says, now, GVSU charters are focused on the road ahead. “Every GVSU charter public school is taking its own unique path toward finding solutions that fit their school community, he says; “and it’s their innovative thinking that keeps every student’s education moving forward.”
While Abney students are able to access resources to guide them through core academics such as math and science, Academic Extension also links to a variety of resources that create additional, engaging learning activities. Students can “travel without leaving their house” by going on virtual tours of exhibits found in institutions like the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., or view the beauty of wonders of the world like The Great Wall of China. By browsing the platform, it is apparent that Abney educators designed it with student learning in mind – to which Kimball has previously said is now public schools' singular focus.
“Today, we have an unprecedented opportunity to rethink public education,” Kimball wrote in an April 6 letter to school leaders and board members. “Student learning is now public schools’ singular focus, not high stakes testing, not attendance, and not compliance with the myriad of regulations that education innovators learn to nimbly navigate,” he wrote.
“We are proud to be standing with you in this moment to rethink what “school” is for your students.” “Continuity of Learning Plans,” the letter continued, “are the opportunity not to create what was, but to shape what public education can and should be.”
Michigan has over 800 traditional and charter school districts that serve approximately 1.5 million students. Kimball’s message to teachers and school leaders to rethink education can serve as inspiration for anyone charged with helping children navigate the unprecedented challenges ahead as they adapt to learning during a public health pandemic. When asked what he is most proud of about the work GVSU charter school leaders are doing to help its students and families, he replies:
“All of us at the University are proud of all that the schools we charter are accomplishing for students today, and how they have adapted to continue to meet student needs through the pandemic.”
Photos courtesy Kendra R. McNeil