Ypsilanti resident Najma Treadwell, who homeschools three of her six children, says panicked friends have been calling her for advice since Michigan schools closed for the COVID-19 crisis, assuming she's used to social isolation and teaching at home. But it's not business as usual, even for those who were already homeschooling.
Treadwell says one big change for her is that the Ypsilanti District Library, a resource heavily used by many homeschool families, is shut down. Plus, her teenage son is normally out of the house attending the Early College Alliance, but now he's home working on his classes virtually.Jaheem, Jahshua, Jah'Niya, Jahn, Jahleel, Najma, Melvin, and Jah'Nyla Treadwell.
"It has caused a ripple in our day-to-day as well," Treadwell says.
Across the Ypsi area, families are worrying about how to keep their kids educated, entertained, and fed – but a variety of resources are available to help them through this uncertain time.
One of the biggest local concerns around school closures is feeding children who benefit from an Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS) policy that provides free breakfast and lunch to 100% of students due to the high percentage of low-income families in the district.
"The Ypsilanti Community Schools have really made a strong effort to get food to these kids," says Ypsi resident Lynne Settles. "The number one thing on every teacher and administrator's heart was, 'What about these kids getting their free breakfast and lunch?' For some, that's their only two meals of the day."
Luckily, community response was nearly overwhelming, and dozens of volunteers offered to help distribute meals to YCS students.
Volunteers are distributing meals to YCS families.
"We had over 200 volunteers who are registered, and more people call us daily to find out how they can help with food distribution and donations to students," says YCS Supt. Alena Zachery-Ross says. "We're really appreciative."
The first day of distribution was Tuesday, March 17, with families able to take home seven days' worth of meals for their children. More than 800 packages of seven meals went home on the first day.
Tina Jurries was among the volunteers who stepped up to help YCS families. She currently lives in Milan but has strong ties to the Ypsi area, including working as the program manager for the Student Advocacy Center's (SAC) Check and Connect program.
The student population served by the SAC is already vulnerable, with many of them facing homelessness, poverty, and other issues. Jurries doesn't want to see food access as yet another problem for these youth, so she signed up to be a site leader who helps complete necessary paperwork and keep tabs on the number of meals and students served.
She says parents have a number of questions and concerns for which school administrators don't yet have answers.
"At the beginning of the week, a lot of what I was hearing was more immediate, about food and childcare concerns, concerns about work and about what's actually going on, since information is rapidly changing," she says. "They're trying to stay up to date, but it's so overwhelming."
Zachery-Ross says "social-emotional health is the first and foremost concern" for parents struggling in the wake of school closures. She suggests keeping children on a daily schedule but creating that schedule in whatever way works best for individual families.
YCS has provided grade-level enrichment packets to all students during local food distribution, but Zachery-Ross says there are many ways families can learn together, including reading and discussing a book or even playing games.
"We've received many donations of crayons and pencils and coloring books, but we've expanded our request to include games," she says. "We encourage families to play games like UNO and dominos, and they can do educational activities like counting by fives."
Treadwell has two pieces of advice for parents who never intended to teach their children at home and are now coping with a new reality. First, avoid comparisons.
"Don't try to look like the Pinterest mom, because you will overstress yourself," Treadwell says. Similar to Zachery-Ross' advice, Treadwell recommends "not trying to replicate an entire school system" but to figure out what will work for your individual family.
Secondly, she advises that parents use this time to observe their children and find out what kind of learners they are.
"If they don't want to do pencil and paper homework, find out how they like to learn," Treadwell says. "I didn't realize until we homeschooled that each child has a different (learning style). My son is more of a hands-on learner, so math involves him manipulating his HotWheels cars or LEGOs instead of doing a workbook."
Teachers and administrators also advise parents to take advantage of a number of online learning resources that have popped up for kids, ranging from virtual tours of art museums and zoos to a free art tool kit offered by Riverside Arts Center.
As volunteers also began handing out academic enrichment packets at food distributions, Jurries says parents' concerns have turned towards teaching at home and wondering if they'll be laid off from jobs at companies that are closing for the next three weeks.
"When I think about myself and my family, we have the resources we need to go out and purchase things like food, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper, and I can drive to several stores to find things if I need to," she says. "But a lot of families don't have these resources, and that's a large burden to them."
Zachery-Ross says the best place for YCS parents to find crucial information aggregated all in one place is the district's website, https://www.ycschools.us/. Information on that page includes a list of food distribution days and sites, downloadable enrichment packets, and information about childcare options for parents who are considered essential workers and can't stay home.
Two other general resources available to all Ypsi-area residents include:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe except food distribution photos courtesy of YCS.