People Schools

The Class of COVID-19

June 7, 2021

Teachers, administrators and students across Metro Detroit weigh in on this wacky school year

You’ve surely heard the expression, “When I was your age, I had to walk uphill to school both ways, barefoot in the snow.” Thanks to the pandemic, there’s now a modern-day version of this parable. Students may not have had to walk to school at all this past year — because in some cases, they didn’t go to school, at least not consistently, thanks to lockdowns, quarantines, and ever-surging cases of Covid-19. But through it all, Metro Detroit administrators, teachers, parents, and students stepped up to face the challenges with flexibility, grit, grace (and many, many face masks). Here are their stories.

Lydia Okasinski

Age 17, Oxford High School Class of 2021

The biggest challenge this year was sitting in class for two hours and hardly talking to anyone. Everyone was wearing a mask so you couldn’t talk to the person next to you. When the teacher was done, everyone would just sit on their phone. I’m a very social person and I used to love going to school just for the social aspect of it, so I hated that.

I also hated not being able to go to football games. There was one game where the school tried to let us go: They painted Xs six feet apart and invited seniors to stand on the Xs with masks on. Everyone was like, “What the heck?”

We missed out on things this year for sure, but they took away exams, which is nice. I think when we’re older and our kids are complaining about, “Oh I can’t do this or that,” we’re going to be like, “Well guess what we had to go through our senior year.”

Alyse Belkin

Resource Room Educator at The Proper School in Birmingham 

I work with 6th to 12th graders and see a lot of students through my tutoring business, and I think middle-school boys have been affected [by the pandemic] the most: There’s been a lot of depression and anxiety, and a lot of students have developed almost an addiction to technology because they’re online all the time. It’s taken the staff at Roeper a lot more energy, time, and effort to keep them engaged and keep their spirits up. We’ve done some things where academics aren’t in the forefront — like recently inviting everyone for a socially distanced picnic lunch outside — but I think we’ve addressed mental health really well.

Nicole Kahn

English Teacher at Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield

When we made the decision in August to open our doors I was very nervous. I didn’t want to be exposed to Covid or expose my children. Figuring out how to keep myself, my family, and my students safe was something I’ve worried about a lot. And then add what’s tough about teaching [in general]. It was a lot to handle.

I wouldn’t have wished this year on anyone but I’m really proud of what we’ve done. There are some things that we developed out of necessity but that I’ll continue to do when things go back to normal. For example, being really thoughtful about what I want my students to get out of class and what we don’t need. We’ve shortened our school day — students can’t eat lunch at school because they wear masks all day so they go home at 1:30 — and I’ve had to pick and choose what’s most important and focus on skills over content.

I hope that when the students are through with this year they can look back and say, “There are things I took out of it that made me stronger.” I think back to my senior year, when the 9/11 attacks happened. There’s no real comparison to that, for obvious reasons, but I think there’s something to be said about having this horrific experience with your peers and processing it and coming through it together.

Camille Robinson

Age 12, Harbor Creek Middle School in Battle Creek

We went from hybrid to virtual to face-to-face four days a week. It’s a lot to handle because you go from seeing not that many people to seeing everybody, sometimes in the span of a month. It was hard to keep my grades up because I comprehend better in person and when we’re virtual they don’t explain things as fully. It was also hard not being able to see my friends, but we’d FaceTime, text, and Snapchat. I had one friend whose house I’d go over to once in a while to talk and hang out. This year has been stressful but the positive part is I got to spend a lot of time with my family and understand how much I care about them.

Viviene Tomich

Age 8, Beverly Elementary in Beverly Hills

Virtual learning has lots of advantages, and I felt like I was able to really focus and do a ton of cool things, I did miss my friends, but I made a bunch of new ones and I had the best teachers.

Pat Watson

Superintendent of Bloomfield Hills Schools

This year reminds me of that old adage, ‘You don’t know what you don’t know.’ We came back in person full time in March but we’ve had seven first days so far! This year forced all of us as educators to be really creative and think outside the box. It can’t just be business as usual.

I’m beyond proud of what our teachers were able to do, especially compared to March and April of 2020, when no one was prepared. They found a way to build lesson plans that were best suited for an online environment versus in person — like virtual field trips and scavenger hunts — and none of them had any training for teaching fully online. It was great to see them collaborate and figure it out on the fly.

One silver lining of this year is [realizing] how students can leverage technology for instructional purposes. At Bloomfield Hills High School, students are now used to taking classes on-line, so [for next year] we’re figuring out how many students are interested in taking certain subjects online and we’ll have BHHS teachers teach some online classes, no different than what you’re seeing at the collegiate level. We also changed the high-school start-time to 7:55, because students benefited from having additional time to sleep.

Everyone talks about going back to normal, and I’m anxious to see what that looks like. I’m excited to see what the new normal can be.

Michelle Toma

Mother of four kids in Walled Lake School District

I have four kids, ranging from Pre-K to third grade. My older kids had maybe one closure at their elementary school until June, which is surprising because now people are vaccinated. The kids adjust to the start and stop fine — they handle things way better than adults. It’s hard when you get an email saying, “Hey, after you pick your kids up today, we’re shut down.” I’ve scrambled to cancel meetings and plans in order to deal with my kids being like, “Mom, where are my scissors?” while my husband and I are on work calls. It’s very loud at home.

Emma Cherrin

Age 17, Berkley High School Class of 2021

I’m a big extrovert and school is a place I affiliate with a strong sense of community, so the prospect of not having that community going into my senior year was daunting. We started the year fully online and sitting across from classmates in class was very different than not seeing anyone’s faces on Zoom. A month into school, most people’s cameras were off. Our classes are 90 minutes long and it feels like you’re watching 90-minute YouTube video. I feel like I didn’t learn as much as I could have.

I’m also on student council so a big part of my responsibility is to plan events for the student body. In the fall, instead of homecoming, we did an outdoor event with food trucks and a movie, and we did putt-putting through the hallways of school with masks on. We went back fully in-person in March and it was really weird because I hadn’t been around that many people in so long.

My social life definitely looked different this year, but having so much time with my family is a big plus given that I’m about to go to college. Strengthening those relationships is really important.

Luke Tomich

Age 8, Beverly Elementary in Beverly Hills

Learning from home this year was great. The teachers made everything fun, and my sister was in the same class so that was the best. But I did miss P.E in person, recess, and seeing friends.


Math Teacher at a Private School in Detroit 

My classes typically have about 22 students: one quarter of them are fully remote, one half are in class, and the other quarter are out in the hallways watching me over Zoom. For the in-person students, this year has gone better than I expected, and the learning is on par with previous school years. But for the students who aren’t here, it’s gone worse. I’ve found that motivation is low — students see friends cheating on tests and ask themselves, “Why am I putting in all this work?” We won’t really understand the consequences of it until they’re taking quizzes right in front of us, and that won’t happen until next year.

Paul Vaughn

9th Grade Social Studies Teacher at Bloomfield Hills Hgh School

The best way I can think about this year is that we all went on this hero’s journey: We came from this ordinary world of traditional teaching, and Covid threw us out of that world and forced us to go on this adventure. There was a lot of uncertainty and it was scary.

But I think that call to adventure ended up being a blessing, at least for me. [As teachers] we were able to tap into some of the skills and powers we knew we had but hadn’t gotten an opportunity to cultivate, such as teaching strategies and techniques that involve the digital world. It wasn’t a smooth transition, and we needed encouragement along the way, but the staff, administrators and even students used each other as mentors. We were all in a situation where we had to be empathetic, but there was a level of accountability as well. Teachers had to manage having students at school and home, parents had to be co-teachers, and students had to take more responsibility for their learning.

But we survived the year and we were able to cross that threshold together. That’s the beauty of community going through these tough times. I want to carry that gratitude forward into next year.

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