FLINT, MI -- The first month of virtual classes has come and gone for Brownell and Holmes STEM Academies, and teachers and support staff are developing a better understanding of the challenges they and their students will face during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For Ashley Strozier, family engagement facilitator at Holmes, who describes her role as “being the glue between home and school,” the last month has been spent doing anything she can to make sure children are up every morning in front of the computer interacting
with their peers and teachers.
Strozier likens her responsibilities to removing obstacles from a road before a car passes by. She needs to take care of anything that gets in the way of student learning.
This “by any means” approach has driven her to hand-delivering wifi hotspots and meals to students across the city, as well as staying up late into the night to help second- and third-shift parents learn how to navigate their child’s online learning tools.
Strozier laughs when asked if "delivery person" or "IT technician" is part of her job description.
“I can’t call myself a family engagement facilitator if I can’t meet the needs of families,” Strozier says. "... Delivering devices, is that in my job description? I don’t remember seeing that anywhere on the paper when I applied, but do I have a problem with it? No, I don’t.”
One of her latest projects aimed at keeping parents informed on their children’s progress and use of online resources took place on Facebook. For an hour, Strozier went live and hosted called Parent University, where she walked parents through a step-by-step process on how to use tools like Google’s GSuite.
Strozier says she’d gotten used to working outside the boundaries of her job well before the pandemic. According to her, being forced to stay home has brought additional challenges for students on top of the needs they had before the pandemic.
“Schools aren’t off the hook,” Strozier says. For many students who relied on their school to provide them two meals per day or for parents who knew their kids would be safe at school while they went to work, online schooling has taken its toll.
“These students' needs haven’t gone away,” Strozier says.
Unfortunately, the obstacles are abundant. While Flint Public Schools have been distributing food for months, the addition of 7th- and 8th-graders to the Holmes building has brought in an influx of older kids for whom Holmes is not centrally located.
According to Strozier, many of these kids live on the opposite end of the city. This combined with the lack of access to transportation makes it difficult for dedicated staff members like Stroizer to distribute food, water, and supplies to them.
Davina Whitaker, a 6th-grade teacher at Holmes, shares Strozier’s dedication to the children she works with. She’s one of the many teachers Strozier coordinates with on a daily basis to evaluate a student’s needs.
“The first month has been a little rocky," Whitaker says. " … Getting devices out to the families that needed them, that was a process."
Whitaker says it took about two weeks to get the majority of her students equipped with the proper tools. The rest of her students trickled in towards the end of the month, with one just receiving a wifi hotspot over the past weekend.
Though teachers have been preparing themselves for months in anticipation of situations like this one, Whitaker says she was still surprised when she found out many parents believed they’d be the ones teaching their children.
According to her, some children have been absent from their online classes simply because parents are so unfamiliar with the school’s method of online learning.
While misunderstandings like these have been quickly resolved, Whitaker says it wasn’t until then that she noticed how many small but crucial steps have to be taken for a student to engage with her class.
Besides having access to the needed technology and the know-how to operate it, students still need to be able to engage with their peers and their teachers. While Whitaker is optimistic about this happening, she has her doubts on how effective long-term online education can be.
“I think (learning material) could stick with them. I think a big learning curve for us as teachers is how to use our technology where students can still interact with each other," Whitaker says. " … There is a lot of interaction that normally goes on in a building and right now teachers are trying to learn ways to still have students connect with their work and with each other online."
She says the social aspect of going to school and the interactions students have with each other both inside the classroom and out all help them be better learners. She says those interactions need to be replicated online, but some of her students already dislike showing their faces on camera or speaking in front of the class online.
She says specific techniques to help children with these types of issues, like splitting the class off into smaller groups, are hard to replicate in an online setting. Teachers and students alike both need time to understand what they’re working with.
Despite the new year’s shortcomings, both Strozier and Whitaker say they’re still excited to see where the rest of the school year goes. According to them, many of their colleagues are too.
While progress is yet to be made, the two educators' commitment to their jobs and their community has already made a difference in the lives of hundreds of children attending Holmes.
“Anything we can do to alleviate stress, we’re doing,” Strozier said. “If you need a hotspot, I’ll do that. If you need us to bring a device to you, no problem. You got home and your device isn’t working and you need to swap it out? You say where you’re at and I’ll bring you the new device.”