Sam Gregoire went from college student to small business owner within a few months, driven by the reality that many K-12 schools wouldn’t be returning to in-person instruction this fall.
A Grand Rapids resident who graduated last spring from Grand Valley State University with degrees in biology and women and gender studies, Gregoire has spent the past month launching a tutoring service for students. Although a small one-person operation, Fiddlehead Tutoring is helping fill a widening gap as schools turn to virtual learning to curb the spread of COVID-19.
A conversation with a friend who was homeschooled about the implications of virtual learning — specifically the recognition that working parents may be faced with homeschooling for the first time — “sparked a fire in me to want to help and contribute to the community,” Gregoire said.
Gregoire began advertising her business on social media this month, and as of mid August was still in the process of forming an LLC. She’s meeting with parents to discuss their needs and is willing to teach students their curriculum in settings where they’re most comfortable.
“I want to be an extra resource for them and help with the challenges of switching from in-person to online learning (and) give them that one-on-one attention they’re not getting in the classroom,” Gregoire said.
While virtual learning or a hybrid model that includes at-home and in-person instruction will limit students’ exposure to and transmission of the virus, it brings a host of challenges involving students’ mental health, education attainment and the workforce — all of which health experts say are difficult to quantify yet crucial to resolve.
“It’s easy to get very focused on the COVID risk alone and thinking about that in isolation,” said Nicki Britten, health officer of the Berrien County Health Department who served on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Return to School Advisory Council. “But when we think about what comprises child health and well being, there is much more: mental health, educational attainment, understanding home and family dynamics and the need to be with other important adults in your life.”
The question remains: How should school boards and administrators strike that balance?
“If I knew the answer to that question, I’d be a very popular person right now,” Britten said. “It’s really hard to know. All of those other parts of that cost-benefit ratio that are non-COVID are really hard to quantify, and they’re happening out of sight.”
Parents’ work situations, particularly if there’s lost income, and the potential for accrued housing debt also change the family dynamic.
“That puts strain on the family,” Britten said. “When we don’t have those daily routines (with school) in place, a lot of mental health issues can happen with children. The same with adults — parents get a lot of support from schools. In terms of keeping the economy open and keeping people working, a lot of parents depend on schools for childcare.”
Don Wotruba, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, said striking that balance has been weighing heavily on school board members across the state.
“They’re thinking: If we make this decision, what’s it mean for our businesses in the community that will have employees needing help to juggle their schedules, or how many people will suffer job losses because of the district’s decision,” said Wotruba, who has a fifth-grader and a sophomore in Grand Ledge Public Schools near Lansing.
Wotruba and his wife preferred to send both children back for in-person learning, although the district has opted against it for now.
“That’s why a lot of districts are telling parents these are initial decisions that are subject to change depending on what the COVID numbers do,” he said.
Emerging from this complex scenario is a clear link to the advocacy some Michigan business groups have been doing around expanding childcare and ensuring educational attainment as a precursor to productive workforce development.
One such group is the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. Recently the Chamber has had internal meetings with member companies and school administrators about the role employers should be playing in this year’s convoluted return to school.
“It’s important for employers to hear what’s going on so they’re up to date to make informed decisions, too,” said Alexa Kramer, the Grand Rapids Chamber’s director of government affairs. “If anything, the pandemic has just highlighted how important childcare is and how much businesses are needed to lean in to solve this issue — even more so now with the uncertainty of the upcoming school year.”
Under Whitmer’s Return to School Roadmap, districts were required to file a formal plan by Aug. 15. While the plan details safety protocols and gave broad parameters based on which pandemic phase a region of the state was in, Whitmer largely left the decision about virtual, in-person or hybrid models to individual districts.
Grand Rapids Public Schools, for example, announced on July 27 that it would do virtual learning for the first nine weeks, a plan that was approved by the school board on Aug. 10. The district plans to ensure each student is equipped with a computer or tablet as well as Wi-Fi internet access, while each student will be supplied two meals a day each week. However, return-to-school plans have varied by district across the state.
“I don’t think there’s a superintendent or board out there that can make a decision that will make everyone happy,” Wotruba said. He added that districts’ decisions to start virtually “give them a little time” to avoid COVID-19 exposure and transmission within schools.
“They’re weighing that against what do you do if you have a two-parent household if they can’t miss work and their third-grader can’t be alone,” Wotruba said. “Boards and superintendents are in a tough if not untenable position.”
As districts mulled plans through early August, Kramer said it became clear to some of the Chamber’s members that employers have a role to play.
“What I’m hearing locally from employers is it’s hard for their employees to show up because there’s not reliable childcare for them,” Kramer said.
Kramer said companies should work directly with childcare providers to ensure students’ educational attainment if a parent needs to work.
“Childcare providers are the experts — let’s boost that capacity as much as we can,” Kramer said.
Britten encourages employers to remain flexible.
“It’s great anytime an employer can make accommodations to help their staff out and help them balance their family and work needs,” Britten said. “If an employer has the ability to allow for flexible schedules, remote work or perhaps even a brief leave of absence — whatever it might be that an employee needs to ensure children are fully engaged — that’s wonderful.”
For occupations that don’t have such flexibility, Britten shares “a lot of empathy and concern for those families. That’s part of us trying to think collectively to get through this pandemic wherever we can make accommodations. Balancing family life and work is really important.”
Without in-person learning, the reduced risk from COVID-19 is countered by potentially exacerbating inequities based on income level and learning resources.
Parents and entrepreneurs are exploring tutoring as one of several tools to replicate the in-person experience. Others are also considering pod-learning, or assembling a group of students outside of school, as another option.
Britten said these may be promising alternatives to childcare services, which also are being strained during the pandemic. According to the state’s Early Childhood Investment Corp.’s most recent quarterly report, the pandemic could lead to the permanent loss of 121,000 childcare slots, or 41 percent of the state’s licensed childcare supply. Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds of parents reported in April having difficulty finding childcare while less than a quarter of essential workers were able to use their previous care arrangement during the pandemic.
“To see an increased demand on that system is definitely a challenge,” Britten said. “On the flip side, people are thinking really creatively — forming co-ops with neighbors and friends — to rotate times of that childcare and share that load. But a lot of that depends on the social capital you have and flexibility with a job. That could continue to drive a difference between the haves and have-nots but we will start to see creative solutions emerge.”
Indeed, these options can be expensive and may also contribute to inequities in accessing resources like wireless internet and computers.
Even disparities in internet access among rural or “near suburban” districts have the potential to “create a huge equity gap,” Wotruba said.
There’s also a potential emotional toll some students may face if their district sees a spike in COVID-19 cases and a nearby district doesn’t, he added.
“There are huge equity problems that exist in districts and between districts,” Wotruba said.
To Gregoire, it will take a community-wide effort to overcome each of these challenges — a necessary battle if it means limiting students’ and teachers’ exposure to COVID-19.
“It’s really on us as a community, parents or me as a tutor who facilitates children learning to make sure we’re helping through this adaptation as best we can,” Gregoire said.