Although more and more people are getting vaccinated, social distancing and wearing a mask is still very much a part of our daily lives.
Two metro Atlanta school districts talk about the steps they have taken to operate and function throughout the pandemic and how they have managed to educate students and keep a sense of normalcy in school during Covid-19.
“From March of last year until the end of May, students were learning virtually,” said Regional Superintendent for Dekalb County Schools Dr. Rodney Swanson. “The process went really well. Our schools were using Microsoft Teams, Google Classroom, Zoom for students’ learning.”
“We observed the teaching and learning taking place in the classrooms and the content that was being taught. There were cameras and smart boards in the classrooms. To date, 24 percent of students are doing face-to-face learning. The other 76 percent are learning virtually. We understand what teaching looks like and we have been engaged and prepared for virtual learning.”
Swanson says that the district has been transparent about how they are following social distancing guidelines and making the environment safe for those students who are learning in school.
For example, the district purchased and delivered hand sanitizing machines, which are placed throughout the schools (hallways, classrooms, etc.) so that everybody can clean their hands. Dekalb County Schools started its school re-opening in three phases this past January, following Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, which requires wearing masks and communicating with the Dekalb County Board of Health.
Principal Tim Jones of B.E.S.T. Academy with Atlanta Public Schools (APS) says the students are given three options for learning during the pandemic: virtual site base, in-person learning, or the Atlanta Virtual Academy.
The school system is following social distancing guidelines recommended by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) as well as the Fulton County Board of Health.
“A little over 25 percent of students are doing in-school face-to-face learning. The in-school class sizes are small,” Jones said. “We follow the social distancing guidelines, where students’ desks are six feet apart.”
“There are eight students per class and thanks to technology, we are doing face-to-face and virtual learning and teaching. We have weekly testing of staff solutions and viral solutions for staff and students, PPE for teachers, web phones, web cameras, and hand sanitizers in the classrooms.
We provide water bottles and touchless filling stations for the staff and students. We have cleaning protocols in the classroom that we follow and even have a care room for temperature and health checks. Parents complete a form for the health checks for students.”
Principal Jones says there is a pronounced effect on engagement of how students engage in the virtual space and that surveys drive the virtual environments for his school.
He says virtual students are moving faster, but there is an impact on the students’ experience. Since the first of the pandemic, the district makes sure every child has a computer and hot spots are provided for those who do not have internet access.
They have even hired staff to make home visits and have provided a virtual center for parents.
“Our teachers have really become more empathetic in the virtual space environment. The parent community has a new understanding of the role teachers play. Students have been afforded more supportive opportunities and a virtual support system since the pandemic began. We even have weekend study support that normally would not be there in the virtual space,” Jones said.
The Dekalb County Schools are also providing support for its teachers and staff and are addressing concerned parents who are worried about sending their children to school about its plans.
“We make sure we are providing that support, virtually and in the classrooms. We identify data and if our teachers need support in certain areas, we provide that support and training,” Swanson said. “We had parents come to visit the building and see our HVAC system. We have shared our plan for social distancing, restroom breaks, which helped with fears parents had. We have had awesome support from the community.”
Additionally, Dr. Swanson said as the Covid-19 numbers go down, more students will return to school.
For students who may be falling behind with virtual learning, Dekalb County Schools has summer intensive programs in place for students to improve in areas of weakness before returning to school in the fall.
If students are unable to take advantage of the summer programs, the first weeks of school, programs are set up to help those students improve in their areas of weakness during the regular school year.
Jones shared how Atlanta Public Schools is providing mental health and wellness for its staff and students in the mental health space.
“We are in an extraordinary space to deal with the space we are in. The district does a great job for wellness by providing Social Emotional Learning (SEL) for students and staff. We have guest speakers to motivate teachers. We want to keep things feeling as natural as possible,” Jones said.
“We do weight loss and push up challenges for example to keep teachers actively engaged and focus on mental health. We support teachers not just professionally, but we also focus on mental health.”
Teachers are not required in either of the school districts to get the Covid-19 vaccine, even though staff in both districts have been vaccinated.
Atlanta Public Schools has had two mass vaccination events this year (January and March 2021) and also provides everyday Covid testing for employees and students (students have to get parents’ permission).
Both school districts have also continued extra-curricular activities throughout the school year, including basketball, football, and track.
“High school students have basketball, baseball, and football approved by the superintendent. We want to make sure these opportunities are available for them,” said Swanson who oversees 14 schools.
Jones said, “Our high school sports are still intact. Our athletic programs excelled during the pandemic.”
This article is one of a series of articles produced by The Atlanta Voice through support provided by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to Word In Black, a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media outlets across the country.