Officials say students, teachers, administrators adapting
High school science teacher Christie Simpson says distance learning may be the hardest obstacle she’s faced in her 13 years of teaching.
“It is so hard because I am a teacher that builds my classroom off of relationships,” Simpson, this year’s system teacher of the year, said. “I feel that one relationship is being there physically for my students, to greet them at the door each day with a smile, give them a hug when a hug is needed, be an ear to listen when they need to talk, and to be a word of encouragement when they are down. I don’t get that opportunity with online learning.”
Educators across the country are facing challenges with distance learning after the COVID-19 outbreak sparked school closures across the state and nation.
Hart County Charter System Superintendent Jay Floyd admits the crisis has been difficult, but he thinks the system is handling it well.
“It’s going as well as we could’ve expected,” Floyd said about distance learning. “We were very fortunate that we already had the Chromebooks in place. I think that put us ahead a little bit.”
When it was announced students wouldn’t be receiving in-school instruction due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the school system acted swiftly with teachers and administrators contacting every parent on the first day of closures to ask a series of questions about what students needed regarding computers and internet access, Floyd said. Google Chromebooks, a brand of laptop computers, were distributed to students who needed them and WiFi-equipped smart bus locations were sent out with dates and times of when the buses would be available to work near.
Besides learning from home, or wherever students access the internet, classes are still the same for students in the virtual school as they were in the physical school building. Many teachers are recording themselves teaching lessons, while also providing assistance via Google Classroom or Zoom meetings when needed. South Hart Elementary Principal J.T. Stewart said at the early elementary level, for instance, many teachers are recording read-alouds of books and other lessons for students, while making those recordings available through internet applications. Students in kindergarten through second grade complete work that is returned to the school through the car rider line on specific days designated as learning packet distribution and returned materials days, Stewart said.
“It’s just like normal instruction during the regular school year,” Floyd said.
Teachers have been in contact with each individual student during the past few weeks and are monitoring their progress, Floyd said. He said there are ways to see who is participating and doing activities through the online learning tools the system is using. Assistant superintendent David Buddenbaum said based on feedback from the schools, the system has had close to 95 percent participation in at home lessons, something he says is a testament to the students, teachers and families.
“Those numbers can be related back to our parents who have demonstrated how important education is to them. They have been outstanding,” Buddenbaum said. “They have worked with teachers and schools to help their student and I think in the long run, this situation will help our schools become even stronger.”
Assignments are still being graded by teachers as they normally would, Floyd said, and the expectation is for students to complete those assignments for credit. Stewart said at South Hart teachers continue to give students an opportunity to complete work each day, even if they are behind, and that the teachers call and check on each student multiple times per week.
Even though assignments are still expected to be completed, students won’t feel the weight of the state’s standardized tests this year after the federal government approved the state’s request to waive the mandated tests, such as the Georgia Milestones tests. State superintendent Richard Woods said at the time “frankly, that testing is not what students, parents, and educators should be focused on at this time.”
For many classes, standardized end of course tests were a major part of the overall grade for students, making up 20 percent of a student’s total grade for the class.
“All that does is shift the 100 percent on other aspects of the class, so teachers have to take that into consideration,” Floyd said.
As a teacher, Simpson was initially concerned about how distance learning would work. She said she didn’t know how much information students would be able to retain and how quickly. She was also concerned about some students having to take care of younger siblings while their parents worked or students having to work themselves, placing added difficulty on learning from home.
“My goal in all of this is for my students to come out of this as better people,” Simpson said. “That will look so different for each of them.”
Hart County High School Principal Kevin Gaines agreed that many students “have other irons in the fire” and that has posed challenges.
“It has been a balancing act but our teachers have done a good job with it,” Kevin Gaines said.
Hart College and Career Academy courses are being taught online as well, Floyd said. The career academy is still working out the details with Athens Technical College of how to complete the courses. Floyd said they’re still strategizing a plan for a few senior welders to complete their assignments and evaluations because they have certain qualifications and regulations they have to meet to fulfill the class. He said those students may have to travel to one of Athens Technical College’s locations to complete their work.
Online learning is a concept the school system hasn’t had to deal with at this scale previously. Buddenbaum said teachers are familiar with the Google Suite of programs, but they have not done a lot of online lessons or video lessons previously. He said the teachers have done a good job communicating with students and parents through video.
“This has almost been like a trial for us,” Floyd said. “We don’t have any staff members, I believe, that are fully trained in how to do online teaching. It’s a totally different animal.”
However, the system is confronting it head-on and may even be benefiting from it, some teachers and principals say. North Hart Elementary principal Haley Smith said the partnerships between teachers and parents have been strengthened by this experience.
“Distant learning has created an opportunity to form better relationships with parents because I am calling them several times throughout the week,” Kelley Gaines, a middle school teacher, said.
One of the biggest challenges the system has faced during this time is to continue providing meals through the nutrition department and coordinating bus drivers. More than 16,000 meals per week have been delivered to students in the county since March 17. The Hart County Board of Education voted to pay bus drivers and nutrition staff hazard pay, $100 more per week for bus drivers and $200 per week for the nutrition staff.
“Overall, we’re pleased,” Floyd said. “Are we experts in doing online learning? No we’re not. But under the circumstances I’m pretty proud of everybody.”
Floyd said he is thankful for all of the various entities in town who have supported the school system and all of the parents for working together during this difficult time.
“I just appreciate how the community has embraced it,” Floyd said. “It is what it is. Sometimes you just have to be patient and sometimes it’s more than what you’re learning, it’s about the process.”