People sensed it was coming, but on Wednesday Gov. Brian Kemp made it official: He said he was ordering schools closed for the rest of the academic year as Georgia tries to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
School districts, already closed through late April by one of his prior orders, will continue to educate students remotely. But state officials have delayed the high-stakes testing that guides much of the instruction, and should soon have approval from the federal government to scrap the tests altogether.
Many saw a shutdown until summer as increasingly likely as the number of deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, continued to rise.
More than three weeks ago, Fulton County Schools became the first district in the state to close for the disease. An employee had been diagnosed with it, and the district announced it would shutter its more than 100 schools for a day to clean and disinfect everything, especially in the three schools that were directly affected.
One day became two and then it was extended as other districts started closing after Kemp gave them the authority to do so. Soon after that public “call for action” came his first executive order closing all schools through March starting March 18. Then, he issued a second order extending it through April 24.
His latest order was a recognition that the fast-spreading pandemic would not be abating any time soon.
Parents who have had kids at home for weeks already were resigned to this outcome.
“We’re not fazed,” said Lori Chaves, a mother in Fulton County. “We figured it was coming.”
COMPLETE COVERAGE: CORONAVIRUS IN GEORGIA
State and federal education agencies were already getting ready for this, too, lifting many of the mandates designed for physical schools on a normal attendance calendar and erasing traditional academic accountability to acknowledge the disruption.
The U.S. Department of Education has signaled that the biggest waiver of them all will be forthcoming. State School Superintendent Richard Woods has indefinitely delayed the Milestones tests, which were to start this month, and has asked the federal agency for permission to do away with them entirely this school year.
Schools may not have to worry about testing, but they still have to keep students on track. Teachers have been working to adapt their lessons for the internet, yet many students lack internet access or computers at home, so it is not an option for them. Some schools are using paper homework instead.
>>How are you affected by this extended school closure? Are you concerned that children are falling behind? What do they miss about school? Let us know at CoronavirusEducation@ajc.com
Administrators, meanwhile, have to plan for all the other things that would normally occur in a school year, such as graduation ceremonies and summer school.
It’ll be easier to plan now that the uncertainty around closure has ended, said Bronwyn Ragan-Martin, the superintendent in Early County in far southwest Georgia.
“We’ll still have to go and figure it out, but at least that’s not an unknown,” said Ragan-Martin, president of the Georgia School Superintendents Assocation. She guessed this was coming after superintendents with whom Kemp consults called her to ask whether she thought he should pull the plug on school.
“They were asking me should we advise him to call it, and I said I don’t think there’s any question about it,” she said, noting that the wave of COVID-19 deaths washing across Georgia is not expected to crest for another three weeks.
Earlier this week, medical experts announced that disease modeling indicated the daily fatalities in the state would peak at 84 on April 23.
“I don’t think he had a choice,” she said.
Georgia now joins at least a half-dozen other states that have shuttered until summer. Since mid-March, Alabama, Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico, Vermont and Virginia have been under state-ordered closures for the remainder of the academic year, according to the publication Education Week. Georgia’s public colleges and most if not all of its private ones closed up for the year back in mid-March, moving everything online.
Leah Ray, of Paulding County, thinks Kemp should have acted sooner, saying “he slow-rolled” the closures. She’s happy he made the call, but is saddened by the consequences: Her son is graduating from North Paulding High School and she won’t get to watch him walk across the stage. “We’ve been striving for this moment for 12 years,” she said.
Schools recognize the effect on their students. Atlanta school Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, for instance, said her district is “exploring alternative scenarios” to celebrate graduation and that the district will be communicating with parents about it.
LaTonya Hill said she’s devastated that two of her children, one in fifth grade the other in eighth, will move on to new schools next fall without a chance to say goodbye to their friends.
“These are end-of-year moments they won’t get to experience,” said Hill, who has four girls in the DeKalb County School District. “I can’t tell them you’ll see these kids again,” she said. “Because you’re not.”
Not every child was disappointed with the governor’s decision. LaToya Smith, of Buford, said her son, 13, was excited by the news.
“He doesn’t realize that if he can’t go to school, he can’t go anywhere else,” she chuckled. “I won’t spoil his fun yet.”
Staff writers Marlon A. Walker, Arlinda Smith Broady and Vanessa McCray contributed to this article
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