Learning labs, texting resources, micro-schools, and more address pandemic-era education struggles

These are just a few of the ways new and non-traditional support systems have arisen in Washtenaw County to address the pandemic's impact on the 2020 school year.

This story is the second in a three-part series on how COVID-19 has activated and strengthened non-traditional, grassroots networks of community support in Washtenaw County. It is made possible with funding from Google's Journalism Emergency Relief Fund. To read the first story in the series, click here.


COVID-19 has brought numerous worries about education and child care as children go back to school in person, online, or through some hybrid of the two this autumn in Washtenaw County.


"We've heard from so many working parents throughout the COVID crisis that when they have to go work on site, they need a place for their children to be with adult supervision and learning opportunities," says Toni Kayumi, executive director of the Ann Arbor YMCA. "In preschool, they knew to budget for [child care]. But pre-COVID, parents didn't have to think about full-day child care for school-aged children, and that's an additional expenditure that was not in the family budget."

Toni Kayumi, executive director of the Ann Arbor YMCA.

Learning labs that provide a supervised space for virtual learning, an expanded texting campaign to engage young children with school readiness skills, and a plan for independent "micro-schools" are just a few of the ways new and non-traditional support systems have arisen in Washtenaw County to address the pandemic's impact on the 2020 school year.


YMCA establishes small group Learning Labs


The Y is responding to local hybrid or all-virtual school schedules this fall by providing a Learning Labs program at the Y's downtown branch and at the Ypsilanti Township Community Center. The program provides a safe location for pupils in kindergarten through third grade to participate in virtual learning, as well as child care for parents who can't stay home to supervise their school-aged children.


The program follows all state, local, and CDC safety guidelines and operates with a ratio of one staff member per 10 pupils. Children must be enrolled in a virtual school curriculum with a synchronized classroom. The child's virtual school provides curriculum, while YMCA staff provide relationship-building activities, exercise, snack time, light academic support, and more.


Kayumi says that grouping pupils into "pods" of 10 limits the fallout if there is a positive COVID-19 test among the children.


"If there's an incident, only that pod of 10 might have to quarantine, not the entire learning lab," she says.


Allowing in-person interaction with small groups provides "that social-emotional connection with other children that is extremely important to the development of youth in those crucial years," she says. She notes that only children may be especially isolated and benefit the most from in-person interactions.


"Those communication skills and social interaction skills help increase learning," Kayumi says.


Ypsilanti District Library expands kindergarten-readiness texting program


The Ypsilanti District Library (YDL) kicked off its TALK: Text and Learn for Kindergarten program in 2017 with a three-year grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), but that grant was about to run out just before the pandemic hit Michigan.


But in July, YDL staff learned that they'd won a new $242,640 National Leadership Grant for Libraries award from IMLS. That grant, as well as partnerships with the Library of Michigan, the Midwest Collaborative for Library Services, and Ypsilanti-based educational nonprofit HighScope, will allow YDL to expand the program throughout Michigan and into Indiana.


The program targets children from birth through age 5 and their parents. Parents can sign up to receive two texts per week that offer suggestions for school-readiness activities that children and their parents can do at home. Parents are encouraged to spend time on five activities each day: talk, read, write, sing, and play, says Jodi Krahnke, head of youth services for YDL.


The parent enters the child's birthday when signing up so all activities are age-appropriate and easy to integrate into a daily routine.


"If you're at the grocery store, you can talk about the colors of the fruit and use the scale to practice early math, like which is bigger or heavier?" Krahnke says. Or children and parents can play "I Spy" while waiting in a doctor's office or riding the bus.

Jodi Krahnke, head of youth services for the Ypsilanti District Library.

The partnership with the Library of Michigan, HighScope, and the Midwest Collaborative means that all libraries participating in the program can pool resources, allowing YDL to improve and expand the TALK program.


Krahnke says that, at the program's peak, about 1,200 were enrolled in Washtenaw County, but some of those children aged out, so the current enrollment is just under 1,000. Krahnke says staff had been publicizing the TALK program a lot in person, but the pandemic has curtailed that outreach over the last six months.


Krahnke says the program sets barriers low to make it easy to participate. Parents only have to enter a ZIP code and a child's birthdate, but no other identifying information. The birthdate is only used to make sure activities are age-appropriate, and the ZIP code is useful when library staff want to alert families to local events that support early childhood literacy.


Those who don't want to sign up for texts or whose children have aged out of the program can find some activity suggestions on the YDL's TALK Facebook page, as well.


Student Advocacy Center steps in with virtual tutoring, parent support


Peri Stone-Palmqist, executive director of Ypsilanti-based nonprofit Student Advocacy Center (SAC), says SAC has traditionally focused on helping students with school discipline issues, but its staff have been doing much more work with special education needs during the pandemic.


"Supposedly districts are starting to roll out more of what special ed programs will look like, but families are frustrated and disappointed at the delay and lack of communication," she says. "I have compassion and empathy for where school districts are right now. There's so much to plan. But it didn't feel good for a lot of our families, and for a lot of them, special ed was treated like an afterthought."

Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Student Advocacy Center.

Stone-Palmquist recently helped a student get an individualized education plan (IEP) virtually, something SAC staff would normally do in person.


"It's not easy work for anyone, but it's why in special education, you have an IEP team," she says. "We're there to help make sure the family's voice is heard, and [that they] know what their options are, so they can really be a part of that planning. [Virtual IEPs] are uncharted territory, but because of that, it's extra important for districts to seek feedback from families, listen to what works and doesn't, and be willing to pivot and change."


Though special education is taking up a lot of staff time, SAC is still helping with some discipline issues as well.


"We're expecting and hoping that there will be fewer suspensions and expulsions this year, but we have helped students who were formerly expelled get reinstated," Stone-Palmquist says.


Going virtual for some school and court hearings has been a boon for some families, who find attending a Zoom meeting more accessible than having to drive to downtown Ann Arbor and pay for parking.


SAC staff have also been recruiting and doing background checks and orientation for volunteer tutors to offer tutoring, mostly virtually.


"They're supporting students virtually through Zoom, but a few of our little guys, like in first and second grade, don't really understand Zoom, so they're outside, doing math on the sidewalk with their tutor," Stone-Palmquist says.


SAC's mentoring program, Check and Connect, is using a hybrid model, with some children meeting with a mentor online and others meeting the mentor at an outdoor location.


"Everyone appreciates a chance to connect, go for a walk, sit on a doorstep, and work together," Stone-Palmquist says.


SAC is also helping families provide useful work spaces for children who are learning virtually from home.


"Middle- and upper-class families are busy buying desks so their kids can have a comfortable space at home, but that's not possible for a lot of our families," she says. "To fill the gap, we're giving them some special seating, and kids with ADHD might get exercise bands or fidget toys to keep them busy and moving but engaged."


A virtual parent support group across three counties is also a new addition for SAC this year. It's on a break as parents adjust to the new school year, but Stone-Palmquist hopes to start those up again in a few weeks.


"It's a really stressful time to be a parent," she says. "Even our staff who are parents appreciate a minute to have some solidarity and hear you are not alone, or celebrate what's working well. It's been powerful."


Parents consider pods and micro-schooling


In addition to these solutions that are already in place in Washtenaw County, some are considering additional ideas to continue rethinking and improving educational options in the future. Ann Arbor resident and early childhood educator Sonja Knighton has discussed with other parents the idea of "micro-schooling." While all parents she was talking to ultimately made other choices for the current school year, she says she's still interested in pursuing her idea of small-scale pods or "micro-schools" networked with others, with families paying for instruction on a sliding scale.


Knighton says the idea came to her over the spring and summer, and families discussed what it would look like in the fall. She notes that many parents are currently lacking the support they usually get from parent organizations and events, and she hears many parents talking about feeling isolated.


"One of the big things that was often overlooked is that schools don't only provide care for children. They provide support for working families in a variety of ways," Knighton says.

Sonja Knighton, Ann Arbor resident and early childhood educator.

She began remembering stories her mother had told her about going to school in a one-room schoolhouse, and realized that today's parents and educators could be inspired by that model to think about education and support for families in new ways.


Knighton says she doesn't relate to the word "pod" and prefers the idea of a network of micro-schools.


"Advice we're getting from health officials at the local, state, and national level is that it's important to keep our social contact, our in-person contact, small," she says. "In order to do that for children, educators need to be in small groups as much as possible."


Knighton envisions four or five families working with a pair of educators. She notes that a pair of educators instead of just one teacher means they can brainstorm and collaborate, or take a little time off as needed without shutting down the entire micro-school.


Her model also includes a sliding scale where about 10% of families would attend for free, and another 30% would pay on a sliding scale. Another 30% would pay the true cost, while the final 30% would pay double the true cost as a form of investment in all the children attending.


Knighton says the micro-school system only determines the shape of the network and the cost, but not the curriculum.


"Any kind of curriculum could be used. One micro-school could choose an unschooling approach, and another might choose a Waldorf approach, or another might choose a packaged homeschooling curriculum," she says.


Another of her goals for micro-schooling networks is creating a shared culture across that network, and "a feeling of home and kindredness in terms of culture." That might mean deciding together what kind of history children will study, what holidays they are going to celebrate, and what children's books they'll be reading.


Knighton says she appreciates that the pandemic has led to parents thinking in a more flexible way about education.


"I would love to continue to think about this idea and how it could happen. People are really ready to talk about different options," Knighton says.

For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.