Time will tell the toll on Georgia schools closed for coronavirus

The coronavirus has upended schools, cutting off teachers from their students and forcing parents to fill the void, while pushing classrooms online in places where some students don’t have the tools to get to them.

It has forced schools to make unexpected decisions about everything from feeding students to finances. They’ve had to create new grading methods to account for a disruption that is consuming the last quarter of the school year, and develop plans to catch students up once it’s safe to gather again. Since students from low-income households are less likely to have all the trappings of a digital life, they are the most likely to fall behind.

The full academic toll may not be known for another year.

The health emergency led state regulators to lift the rules that hold schools accountable, letting them ignore missed attendance and even end the school year early, as some school districts are doing. The one yardstick designed to measure the consequences statewide has been tossed aside: Standardized tests have been canceled this year. Without them, there is no way to gauge how much learning is being lost across Georgia.

If there was one bit of luck with this pandemic, it was the timing: The virus shuttered schools just before spring, when they had already covered the bulk of their curriculum and were reviewing material to prepare for the state-standardized tests. Since the tests won't be given, two school districts have announced they are ending early — Carrollton City on May 1 and Chattahoochee County on May 8. In metro Atlanta, Gwinnett County is sticking to its May 20 end date but will be giving students a break from assignments on Fridays starting this week. Cobb County is also moving to four-day digital learning schedule. Fulton County is ending school for seniors on May 1.

Others could follow given the concerns about schooling remotely.

“It’s not very equitable, no matter how hard you try,” Chattahoochee Superintendent Kristie Brooks said. About 1 in 5 of her high school students lack internet access, so district employees have been delivering their coursework on flash drives. Paper homework goes to the younger students. It’s been stressful for her teachers.

“They are absolutely exhausted because they all have children, so as much as they do for their classrooms, they’re also doing for their own children,” Brooks said.

Although the federal government has waived the mandate to administer the state exams, known as the Georgia Milestones, most school districts will use their own local tests to measure student achievement, or the lack of it. Still, there will be no statewide reports until more than a year from now, after the Milestones next spring.

Fulton County is among school districts contemplating an aggressive summer school program to begin filling the gaps. The core metro Atlanta district would start online work in June and phase in classroom time in July.

That presumes it will be safe enough by then to gather in classrooms, an issue across the state.

"At this point, I don't see that as a reality," said Kenneth Dyer, superintendent of schools in Dougherty County, the epicenter of Georgia's coronavirus outbreak. "I do see the fall as something we can plan for, a realistic possibility."

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said the district may extend the school day or the school year starting next fall, but she estimates it would cost at least $20 million extra. Cutbacks now could save money for it, she said in an April 3 online forum. Ending this year early “would mean real dollars that we could redirect later,” she said.

School districts across Georgia are already worried about next year’s budget. Schools have to sign teacher contracts next month and adopt local budgets by June, but are flying blind, since state lawmakers, who suspended the legislative session for the virus, haven’t approved their allocation yet. They know there will be less money, but how much less?

For now, teachers, students and parents will continue moving, or in some cases stumbling, into remote schooling, a pliable concept that can include video conferencing, independent study on computers and paper packets.

Some superintendents in rural parts of the state, Dyer included, are learning that as many as half of their students lack internet connections at home. Many also don't have their own computers, and either share time on a parent's laptop with their siblings or do homework on a phone. Some districts can send a device home with every child, and some are buying and distributing portable internet "hot spot" devices, but there are not enough to go around. The state has unveiled a website to search for free public Wi-Fi, typically at library parking lots, but many parents, especially those in low-income households, have jobs that don't leave time to drive their children there and wait while they work.

Access to computers and the internet is also a problem in some parts of metro Atlanta.

Gwinnett County reports 97% digital participation, but others are seeing a smaller proportion of their students online.

Atlanta Public Schools found that 94% of middle school students logged on during the first two weeks after classes shifted online. In first and second grades it was nearly 84% but in pre-k and kindergarten it was 43%.The measure was a low bar: Students only had to log on once to be counted. The district said it’s “safe to assume” they are losing ground.

Fulton thinks so too, saying “ample evidence” suggests online learning is inferior to traditional classroom instruction. About 15% of Fulton students cannot get online, anyway, the district said.

A recent survey of educators by the largest teacher association in the state found widespread disparities in shelter-in-place schooling. Frustration with technology was a recurring theme.

Over a third of the more than 15,000 respondents to the Professional Association of Georgia Educators survey said getting students online was their biggest challenge, Executive Director Craig Harper said. About 1 in 5 said their biggest problem was converting their lessons to an online format.

Half said they were doing all this with children of their own to tend to.

While some school districts were ready for a smooth transition to virtual classrooms, others have had a bumpy start.

Neben El, who has boys attending the schools in Gwinnett County where he lives and a daughter attending a school in Richmond County where she lives with his ex-wife, said the differences have been stark.

One of his sons got a package from one of his middle school teachers with well wishes and chocolates. The teachers there and at his other son’s elementary school have been in constant contact, he said.

Meanwhile, his daughter cannot get a response from her high school teachers in Richmond Countywhich serves Augusta. When he intervened, he got one email response from one teacher. "The schools out here in Gwinnett have been great, but Richmond, nothing," he said. "This is unacceptable, especially during a crisis."

A spokeswoman for the Richmond district said “many” teachers have “distance” learning plans through the internet or on paper and that they have “worked through challenges experienced during this unprecedented time,” consistently improving.

There are even differences within school districts. Consider the experience of two households in Rockdale County, on metro Atlanta’s east side.

High school senior Nicholas Yeager fears he will not graduate on time. Before his school closed in mid-March, he arranged for tutoring sessions with teachers after a rough start to the semester. Now, he tries to study in a house with three younger siblings and six adults, including his sister sent home by her closed college. He says his teachers have not responded to his pleas for help.

“They just upload assignments,” said Yeager, who is 18 and hopes to become a firefighter or join the Army but can’t do that without a diploma. “So we’re not getting any tutoring.” He said he needs to be able to ask questions and get them answered in real time.

“Not all of us are good at learning watching YouTube videos,” he said.

A-kima Batiste’s two daughters, however, are excelling. Like Yeager, they have school-issued laptops. Importantly, they have used them at home on prior “independent learning” days, which their schools hold periodically.

“When it came to this coronavirus, it was such an easy transition,” Batiste said. “They’re loving this.”

No more disruptive classmates, and no more waking up at 6 a.m.. Now, the girls, in third and eighth grade, sleep three hours later, then mosey downstairs to their computers after breakfast. They can ride their bikes in a neighborhood park; at school, there was no time for recess.

Districts are resorting to old-fashioned methods for students who are not digitally connected.

Nearly a third of the students lack internet access in Grady County, on the Florida line. That’s why Superintendent Kermit Gilliard and his administrators have been delivering paper homework packets during their rounds to hand out food under the federally subsidized meal program.

>>The coronavirus has left many without jobs. If recent economic hardship has led you to seek free school meals to feed your child, tell us about it at CoronavirusEducation@ajc.com

Since the virus can survive on surfaces for up to several days, he said he won’t let staff review the completed packets until the bundles have sat in a classroom for a couple of weeks.

Grading has been an open question across the state.

Each of the 180 school districts can do what it wants, but the Georgia Department of Education is recommending pass-fail scoring through eighth grade.

Matt Jones, chief of staff for state School Superintendent Richard Woods, said extensive discussions with colleges ruled out that option for high school. They want a numerical grade. (Scholarship eligibility is one reason.) So the state is recommending that high schools give students whatever grade they had when they closed in mid-March, with the option to raise it with extra work.

It’s a “no zero policy” on assignments, Jones said. “Students shouldn’t be penalized for something that’s beyond their control.”

Staff writers Vanessa McCray and Arlinda Smith Broady contributed to this article