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Coronavirus outbreak not breaking learning at Grand Rapids West Catholic High School

Governor Whitmer's decision to close schools left many of them scrambling for an online education plan. One West Michigan school already had a plan in place.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — As a result of the coronavirus outbreak, school is out all across the state of Michigan.

On Thursday night Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the closure of all Michigan K-12 schools, including public, private and boarding, in response to the confirmed cases.

The closures started Monday and will end on April 5, according to officials. Schools are scheduled to reopen on Monday, April 6.

Whitmer said this decision was made in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.

While many Michigan schools are now trying to come up with a plan where the students can attend class, get their coursework done and take tests from home, Grand Rapids West Catholic High School read the tea leaves, and already had a plan in place.

"We feel very fortunate that we got our teachers and students all trained how to operate online classes when we did," said Cynthia Kneibel, Principal and CEO of West Catholic High School. "We started working on a plan last Tuesday (March 10)."

She says the school has been working on online platforms with its students for the last three years, but there was still one piece that hadn't been implemented yet—the conferencing function.

"We decided to use last Thursday (March 12) as a professional development day, where the teachers could be prepared in the event of a shutdown," said Kneibel. "We had a two hour delay that day so the teachers could learn the conferencing the function on our online learning platform.

"Each teacher in every class throughout the day worked with their group of students so they knew how to work with it, too."

Serendipitously, that happened to be the last day of school.

"We happened to hit the timing very, very well," added Kneibel. "Thanks to our technology team for making it happen so quickly."

School officials say they started cultivating an online education plan after West Catholic endured nine consecutive snow days in 2019. 

"All that needed to be done was figuring out how to navigate the conferencing the function on the app," said Tom Kutzli, West Catholic's Technology Director. "Once that was done, we made sure all the students knew how to connect and all the teachers were refreshed on how to do it."

On Monday, March 16, West Catholic faculty members reported to class at their usual times, and were greeted by chairs perched on top of desks and a whole lot of loneliness.

Credit: WZZM
Grand Rapids West Catholic math teacher, Brett Lynch address his class of students a different way during the Coronavirus outbreak.

"This is not how I would like my class to go," said Brett Lynch, who teaches both math and economics at West Catholic. "It's just a surreal kind of eerie experience." 

Lynch spent day one hunched over his iPad talking to his students who were attending his class. He wrote on a board the students could see remotely. He'd ask questions, pausing for 60 seconds to wait for them to text questions to him. 

"It's better than nothing," Lunch added. "The students will be happy if we don't have to make up any missed days later in the year."

Credit: WZZM
Brett Lynch talks to his class (through his I-Pad), while they're able to watch him solve math problems and teach on his Smart Board.

There's still one part of the online process that's a work in progress for the school— assessments.

"Test taking is going to have to be done differently," said Kneibel. "If it's not, the students could be sitting there with ten of their friends all taking the test and sharing the best answers."

Attendance will be taken each day and grades will be given.

"We have our attendance policy which will allow us to collect the names of the students who didn't tune in," said Kneibel. "We will be making follow-up calls to the parents for those students who may not have shown up, and we'll ask why."

School officials say they've also come up with solutions for students who don't have internet access at home.

"[The app we use for the class] can also work on a smartphone," said Kneibel. 

The coronavirus has placed everybody in an uncertain time, but the educators at West Catholic are making sure the outbreak won't cause a break in their students' education.

"They're glad that there is some normalcy," said Kneibel. "[The students think] I still have to go to class; I still have to do my homework; I'm learning and I'm not missing a beat; I'll be ready no matter how long this thing goes on."

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