Muskegon Public Schools, which is offering online-only classes amid the coronavirus pandemic, will offer in-person tutoring to allow students get important face-to-face instruction from their teachers.
If there’s one lesson Muskegon Superintendent Matthew Cortez learned from virtual learning during the spring, it’s the importance of students building strong relationships with their teachers.
“We noticed in the spring that our kids do thrive off of that relationship with their teachers,” Cortez told MLive. “To be real clear, the single best way that we educate our children is face-to-face.”
But Cortez also knew he wasn’t willing to risk the safety of his students and teachers by bringing Muskegon Public Schools back for full, in-person learning this fall. So, the district offered online-only classes when school started Aug. 26.
Over 100 school districts across the state have opted to move education online to start the 2020-21 school due to coronavirus concerns.
After weighing his options, Cortez soon came up with a unique plan for Muskegon to maintain both safety and student-teacher relationships: Virtual classes with in-person tutoring.
Muskegon will allow parents to sign their students up for face-to-face tutoring sessions with their teachers each week. The 55-minute sessions will be limited to no more than eight students in a classroom, and are offered five days a week.
The plan allows students to receive important in-person instruction from their teachers, while also being able to maintain social distancing with the group of six to eight other students.
“We wanted a parent to be able to utilize the teacher of the classroom to help the student if the student was struggling or even to begin to build that relationship, face to face, and with very small, very controlled numbers,” Cortez said.
The district will begin offering in-person tutoring Sept. 8. Parents can sign their student up for a 55-minute tutoring appointment Monday through Friday, which is scheduled in between their morning and afternoon virtual classes.
Sessions for grades K-5 will take place between noon and 3:30 p.m. at the student’s individual school, while middle school sessions are scheduled from 12:30-2:30 p.m. and high school sessions are from 12:45-2:45 p.m.
Cortez said the district’s plan offers the opportunity for vital relationship-building between teachers and students, but also keeps everyone safe since there will be less than 10 people in the classroom at a time.
“They’re able to go in and spend time with that teacher, and it allows that one-on-one, face-to-face contact in very small, controlled numbers,” he said.
Cortez said he’s heard a lot of positive feedback from district parents, who are grateful for an option that allows their kids to meet with their teachers in a smaller group setting.
District parent Amanda LaBrenz told MLive she’s grateful the district is giving families the opportunity for face-to-face instruction with teachers.
“I have one son that is going to be doing the in-school tutoring for Spanish,” she said. “He is so excited to do so because it is is first year of middle school.”
LaBrenz said she has some concerns about coronavirus for her son, who is heading into sixth grade, but the Muskegon mom feels he’s old enough to make his own choice about going to in-person tutoring.
“I feel our kids need to live a normal life,” she said. “Covid isn’t just going to disappear. I think going to school is a healthy thing for our kids.”
The school district isn’t relying on the tutoring sessions for its curriculum. That means if the district is forced to close its buildings due to an identified outbreak or the region moving backward from Phase 4, instruction can still continue smoothly online.
“March 13 also taught me that lesson that when I design a school schedule in the middle of a pandemic like this, I need to be able to essentially lose the building but maintain the high quality of education,” Cortez said.
“That’s the thing that I really like about our system, is that even if we have to shut down schools, the only thing we would be changing is the physical presence. We wouldn’t change teachers, we wouldn’t change curriculum. We’d have that consistency for kids.”
Cortez said some districts from across the state have reached out to him for guidance on the district’s unique fall learning plan.
He said the plan has been “touted as a model to exemplify” safe online instruction.
“I mean, I have people contacting me and saying, ’We know in two or three weeks we’re going to be out so can you give me a copy of your plan,’ and some part of me says, if you know you’re going to go out in two or three weeks, why are you even opening?’” he said.
“You know, it doesn’t make sense to put kids through that if you don’t have to.”
Muskegon was one of the first few schools in the state to announce online-only learning for this fall. Some other districts online this fall include: Ann Arbor, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and Flint.
Before entering the Muskegon building, all students, teachers and staff must complete a screening questionnaire and monitor for coronavirus symptoms. Masks are also mandatory in the buildings at all times, unless someone is alone in a room.
The district is offering bus routes for students who wish to utilize the tutoring option. Cortez said the buses will take a general route throughout the city, and parents can drop off and pick up their kids along the route.