How do you teach science experiments at home? How educators are adjusting to the school shutdown.

By: - April 28, 2020 11:21 am

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On a normal Monday morning, Devin Schweigert, a seventh grade science teacher at Manistee Middle High School, would be leading a classroom full of students in a science experiment. 

However, on this particular Monday morning, he is at home by his computer trying to create lesson plans that his students can do with or without internet access.

Teacher Devin Schweigert’s home office | Devin Schweigert photo

“I wake up and then I’ll be by my computer most of the day, so that if kids have any questions or anything like that, they can email me,” Schweigert said. “So on a day-to-day basis, I am really just interacting with the people who do have internet.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer closed school buildings on March 16. And on April 2, she announced that schools would not be reopening for in-person learning for the 2019-20 academic year.  

Parents, students, teachers and administrators floundered in the unknown for those couple of weeks in between, wondering how students would get the education they deserve. 

When Whitmer announced that schools would remain closed, she instructed district leaders to create learning plans and do the best they can to find solutions to the challenges. 

School districts were ordered to implement a process to allow high school seniors to graduate, move younger students on to the next grade and only award credit and grades for courses based on coursework through March 11. 

Peter Spadafore, lobbyist for the Michigan Association for Superintendents and Administrators (MASA), said that local school districts are best fit to create their own at-home learning plans, rather than a statewide plan, because of the unique challenges in each area. 

“It’s great that we’re able to do this on a local level,” he said. “I think a one-size-fits-all approach would have been disastrous in the state of Michigan, but hopefully we’re all learning and we can provide some state guidance on what has worked and what hasn’t.”

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For many districts, this meant moving assignments online, but Spadafore said this has shown major inequities and lack of access to necessary resources, like internet. Most districts are sending worksheet packets to the homes of students without internet access.

Overwhelmingly, teachers and superintendents have said that inequitable access to the internet is the greatest challenge to providing all students learning materials. 

As previously reported by the Advance, roughly 12% of Michigan children — about 267,000 kids — live without access to the internet, according to data gathered in 2018 by Kids Count in Michigan.

In rural and poverty-stricken areas, this problem is debilitating for at-home learning. 

Katy Xenakis-Makowski, the superintendent of Johannesburg-Lewiston Area Schools, a rural school district in northern Michigan, said that about 30% of the students don’t have access to the internet and about 50% of students don’t have strong enough internet to stream videos. 

“We have significant portions of our community that can’t even get a cell phone signal at their house, so getting them on a hotspot wouldn’t fix the problem,” Xenakis-Makowski said. 

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Last week, DTE Energy, Quicken Loans, the Skillman Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation and General Motors donated $23 million to help provide 51,000 Detroit Public Schools Community District students with laptops, wireless tablets and internet access. 

“I have a friend who’s a teacher in Detroit Public Schools and she is so excited that somebody came forward with money to provide laptops for all of her kids because now she’s able to do all these things with them,” Xenakis-Makowski said. “Even if somebody walked in with money to buy every kid in my district a laptop, it wouldn’t matter, because they can’t access the internet anyway. We find that we have more devices than we have internet access.”

Schweigert said his district in northwestern Michigan faces similar struggles — about 23% of seventh graders in the district don’t have access to the internet. 

Because of this, he isn’t able to keep in touch with all of his students as much as he wants to. 

Schweigert said about half his students are returning online assignments and he is in communication with about 20% of his students on a regular basis. 

As for lesson planning, Schweigert is concerned that the assignments he is sending out aren’t enough for the students. 

To make up for the science experiments that students are missing out in the classroom, Schweigert is trying to find alternative projects they can work on at home. However, he says it’s a challenge to find experiments that only use common materials students will have in their house. 

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“It’s tough to guess,” he said. “It’s like, are the kids going to find this interesting? Are they going to want to know more about this? Is this going to take them 30 minutes or three minutes or an hour?”

Xenakis-Makowski said the teachers at her district are working overtime to make phone calls, email or video chat with every student.  

“We are making sure that we continue to build and connect, because relationships are really the critical piece of education,” she said

Spadafore says that local schools are doing their best “in a world where not everything is equitably distributed.”

“Not everyone can implement a one-to-one computer program for instruction. Not everyone has the ability to drop off packets every day because their district is the size of Rhode Island,” he said. “I think I’ve had a few members say that things are going okay, but you know if we had a little bit more time than three weeks we would have maybe done some things differently.”

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Grading policies

Under the governor’s executive order to close schools, districts shouldn’t make at-home assignments mandatory for students or assign grades.

“When grading what they’re doing at home, it is really the equivalent of grading the accessibility and supportive structure of their family. And that’s not equitable,” Xenakis-Makowski said. “So we’ve instructed our teachers not to require any new learning and instead to be focusing on areas where students struggled earlier in the year.”

John Denney, superintendent of Hanover-Horton Schools in South-Central Michigan, said the district is still working hard to keep students engaged and in a position to pass their classes, as well as ensure seniors are able to graduate. 

“The timing of [the closure] allowed us to end our third marking period right at the time of the shutdown, so we locked those numbers in and we’re treating those grades as the semester grades for the seniors,” Denney said, “So if the senior was passing all of their classes and on track for graduation, they’re done and they’re set to graduate. If they were failing a class at the time of that marking period, they’re able to do makeup work and do what it takes to try to see if they can get the grade up.”

While stress levels are high for the school year, school leaders are looking ahead to next year and trying to make plans the best they can. 

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One of the concerns for next year is how statewide standardized testing will be handled and whether or not they will be rewritten to test on the curriculum that was covered before the shutdown.

At Hanover-Horton, Denney said the district is not focusing on test scores, but only prioritizing what the students need for their education.

“There’s no way we’re going to be able to hit everything,” he said. “So we’ll look at it, and if it’s something that is a key learning block that happens to be on that year’s test, we’ll focus on that. But we’re going to choose what the kids need more so than what’s on the test.”

Planning for standardized tests and how to catch up on curriculum next school year may be a challenge when superintendents are still wondering when students will be able to be back in buildings. 

Xenakis-Makowski said she has started to form a committee to discuss what the structure of next school year could potentially look like. 

“Even if there was this miracle and tomorrow everybody was healthy and we’re ready to go back, It’s not going to be the same,” she said. 

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The committee will be looking at different models, such as a tiered model where half of the students would come to school one day and the other half would come the next day. 

“Are we going to strip it back to only be math, science, social studies and English? How do we find ways to embed the other critical enrichments?”

As a superintendent of a school district, you want to have the answers to the big questions, but Xenakis-Makowski knows that all she can do for now is be prepared for anything.

“For the most part, people are trying their best and trying to be patient with each other. And I’ve been stressing that with my students and telling them that none of us have ever done anything like this,” Schweigert said. “This is truly unprecedented, so it’s not going to be perfect. We’re going to have to be patient with each other.” 

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.

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