Detroit district students worry about learning loss, isolation, and staying motivated while learning remotely

Niyla Stitt, a high school junior in Detroit, hopes she’ll get the one-on-one attention she needs while learning online this fall.  (Courtesy Photo)

Eva Oleita is terrified of getting COVID-19. 

Oleita, a senior at Cass Technical High School, is more vulnerable to the harmful effects of COVID because she has asthma. During severe attacks, she needs a machine to help her breathe. 

To stay safe, Oleita will be learning remotely this fall.

“I don’t myself feel comfortable even entering the building,” said Oleita, whose mom battled the virus this spring and recovered. 

As school leaders, parents, and teachers clash over school reopening plans, students also have strong opinions about the decisions the adults are making. About 80% of students in the Detroit school district will begin the school year online Sept. 8. But while some say they or their parents made that decision for safety reasons, they’re consumed with anxiety: Will they get a quality education online? Will they be able to connect with their classmates outside of the virtual world?

“I really didn’t want to do online. My dad wanted me to because he didn’t want to risk me catching the virus,” said Tya Vasser, a senior at Communication and Media Arts High School. “I completely understand his decision because he wants to keep us safe.”

Alexis Harris, a senior at Renaissance High School, initially signed up for the face-to-face option, because she said it’s a better learning environment for her. At the time, she assumed the public health crisis would have improved by now. But she recently started wavering.

“A lot of students I talked to want to stay home because they are afraid,” Harris said Monday.

By Thursday, the decision had been made for her. Harris said she received a message indicating the entire school will be online only. The district, which has been trying to provide both an in-person and online option for parents, is now allowing entire schools to go online only if too few teachers sign up for face-to-face instruction. Harris is OK with that.

“I’d rather be safe than sorry,” she said. 

If schools do go back in person, other students worry that safety protocols won’t be enforced, or that their classmates wouldn’t follow safety guidelines.

“I know all the kids are not going to  pay attention to the rules. ‘Keep on a mask. Take this serious. If you’re sick, don’t come,’ ” said Niyla Stitt, a junior at CMA. “If I see that they’ll be more serious, then I’ll come.”

“[The teachers] already have a difficult time implementing dress code. How are you going to say, ‘Hey, you need to wear a mask?’ ” Oleita said. 

Oleita said she understands that some students need the in-person option. She knows students who rely on school meals, may come from unstable households, or just can’t sit in front of a computer screen for hours each day.

“This is why it’s not only the district’s responsibility, but also the state’s responsibility to make sure they are providing resources for their children who are disadvantaged.”

Students say they’re unsure what would make them feel safe to return to school buildings. Vasser said her dad would consider letting her return to in-person learning in January, if rates of positive coronavirus cases are close to zero. 

Stitt fears another outbreak of COVID could ruin every student’s chance of going back to campuses. While she’s committed to online learning for now, it’s still unsettling. 

“I never thought I would experience this,” she said. 

‘In over my head’

Students say they’re hoping online learning will be better in the fall than it was in the spring, when school districts across the state made an abrupt shift to remote instruction in order to curb the spread of the virus. 

Educators are expecting most students to begin the school year with some learning losses related to the pandemic.

Stitt said she is not a good online learner. This past spring had her feeling overwhelmed. 

“I feel like I didn’t learn enough, especially in math. I was in over my head,” she said. 

Stitt said she was never nervous about raising her hand and asking a question in physical classrooms. But during online classes in the spring, it was tough to get a word in when other students talked. 

“It would be hard to get her attention,” she said, referring to her teacher. 

Harris said it was challenging to adjust to online learning this spring, and it affected her work ethic. Learning at home was too comfortable.

“It was hard because I would wake up and work five feet away from my bed. I was like, “Do I want to get up?” she said. 

To overcome this, Harris is planning a stricter daily routine, getting up early and starting schoolwork. Although she does well in English, she tries to visualize story passages to keep the material interesting and fight off boredom. 

“If I imagine it, it makes it better,” she said.  

Oleita and her friends have been talking about ways to be more self-sufficient and learn independently. 

If she needs help with schoolwork, she said she’ll be in constant communication with her teacher through texts or reach out to her peers. 

Stitt said she hopes learning strategies like small group discussions will continue virtually. It’s helped her before. She still hopes she’ll get the extra attention she needs because she is worried about falling behind.

“I don’t catch on as fast as everybody else. I do need one-on-one help with math. It’s really my struggle area,” she said. “What if I don’t understand the whole time while online? What if my teacher doesn’t notice?”

‘I hope we can get past this’

With the school year quickly approaching, Harris is hoping she can continue participating in choir. She’s president of her school choir and has developed many close relationships with other choir students and teachers. 

But she said it’s unclear whether it will continue this school year, as concerns rise about the potential for indoor choir activities to spread the virus. 

“I would be really hurt. While I understand it’s a huge risk to have everyone together, it would be really sad to not have anywhere to go after school or not have those people around anymore,” she said. 

The prospect of the next few weeks being isolated at home is making Stitt reflect.  

“I never did a whole bunch of stuff that I wanted to do [before the pandemic], and I probably took it for granted,” she said.  

She already misses being able to read a book in class, going to the board to work out a problem, or greeting her teachers in the hallways. As remote learning continues, she’s a little worried a sense of community will be lost. 

“The classroom is way different. It’s just a better atmosphere,” she said. “I really want to go back to school. I know it will be a while. I hope we can get past this.”

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