For Chia Suggs and Bethany Wright, the challenges of working full-time jobs while maintaining a watchful eye over their children, who are now immersed in virtual learning this fall, are plentiful and, sometimes, overwhelming.

The pair, who have been friends for more than 15 years after working together in a 911 call center for the  Clayton County Police Department, both shared some of the difficulties that they have encountered in the last month of virtual classes in Clayton County Schools, where all of their children are enrolled.

Clayton County Schools, the fifth-largest school district in Georgia, opened its fall semester on Aug. 10, after postponing its start date five days to give teachers and staff more adequate time to prepare for an all-virtual learning environment.

Although school officials had initially planned for a hybrid learning model that would have included some face-to-face instruction, ultimately the data did not support pressing forward with that plan.

“We were, based on our data, leaning toward that blended model,” explained Clayton County Schools Superintendent Morcease J. Beasley in early July. “However, the data continues to worsen.

“We do know that we prefer kids in school face-to-face, we know families need children in school so that they can get back to work, we understand those things,” Beasley said. “But we also understand that we got a lot of families that are concerned about the virus. We’ve got a lot of employees who are concerned. We’ve got a lot of members of the community who are concerned. And right now the data is not too encouraging relative to getting this thing under control.”

Among those concerned were both Suggs and Wright, who also is a kindergarten teacher for Clayton County Schools.

Suggs has two children enrolled in the system, while Wrights has three children enrolled in the system. Suggs serves as an advertising administrator for this publication.

“Virtual learning has come with both challenges and blessings,” Suggs said. “The biggest challenge is getting my children to not fall back on being comfortable at home while ‘in school.’ The blessing is being able to remotely work from home to assist them. 

“My six-year-old is a first grader that is in a dual language immersion magnet program,” she continued. “My 16-year-old-is a 10th grader who also attends a magnet school, where she is taking all Honors courses.”

Having an opportunity to be more present in her children’s education was also a blessing Wright highlighted, despite some of the challenges her family has faced in the first month of classes.

“With my oldest two, I’m thankful.,” Wright said. “They’re very responsible. I have a high schooler and she’s a freshman, but she’s very mature. And she’s very responsible about getting herself online and only bothering me when it’s something that she can’t work through.

“The same goes for my middle schooler — he’s very independent, but there have been challenges,” she added. “There are days I forget to wake him up and I’m like teaching my kids. I’m like, ‘Hold on. I’ve got to go be a parent for a second.’”

In addition to the time management challenges, both Suggs and Wright said they have experienced some issues with the technology.

Whether it has been national outages on Zoom or cases when teachers themselves are struggling with the technology, getting school-aged children adjusted to being in a virtual learning environment where they might be on video comes with a host of challenges that often converge with equity, access, and technical literacy.

“Another challenge, of course, was acquiring devices because pre-pandemic, all the kids have tablets, but we only had one laptop,” Wright explained. “In addition to my work laptop that was shared throughout the house, I had some difficulties getting on that laptop.

“So as the year approached and we began talking about virtual, I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to have to buy laptops because the tablets don’t work,” she continued. “Fortunately, Clayton County Schools was able to issue every student, at least in my household, a laptop, or a Chromebook. And they were able to access their classes and materials.”

But then, with three students on computers, and herself, teaching students on an additional device, Internet access became an issue.

“The next concern I had was with the first few days of school, we were like crashing the internet here at my house,” Wright said. “Well, I did have to widen my bandwidth.”

For Suggs, technology issues have not been as severe. She said her kids are both pretty Web savvy so that has helped in both troubleshooting and figuring out how to avoid some of the access challenges.

“Major hiccups have occurred when they technical aspect of the system fails and they have to regroup,” Suggs explained. “Another hiccup is when the teachers themselves are not ‘tech-savvy.’

“In some cases, the children will have learned tricks and features of the system that the teachers cannot control,” she added. “But it is at that point that we are all in the same boat, learning and adjusting to the technology together.”

Wright noted that keeping her children engaged throughout the day has posed some challenges.

“Twice today I caught my third grader with her tablet in her lap,” she said. “I know she can’t have that tablet and her access. So if she’s going to be on that tablet, I know she’s not paying attention.

“The same thing goes with my oldest child: she had some assignments missing,” she added. “Her teacher says, ‘You’re missing assignments,’ but they should have been done while she was in front of the computer. I asked her, ‘What’s going on, tell me the truth. Are you on your phone?’ She’s like, ‘I was.’ So now her phone is with me, and she’ll get it back about 2:45.”

Suggs and her family faced a different set of challenges due to being displaced after a house fire in May almost completely destroyed her family home and totaled her brand new vehicle. Fortunately, support was only a few steps away. Suggs’s mother lives just two doors down from them.

Suggs, her husband Donnell, and their two children were able to move in with her mother while repairs are being completed.

Suggs’s mother, who is retired, has also been able to help out by being present for the virtual learning classes, when necessary.

“Given these circumstances, things could be much worse so I am blessed to have the support system that I have,” Suggs said. “My mother has been my rock from day one of life. I am grateful for her.  It truly takes a village.”

Despite the challenges virtual learning has presented so far, both parents said they are not worried about their children’s overall education being compromised as a result of the system of adjustments they’ve faced so far.

“While it is true that our children’s academic progress has to now be carefully monitored as this landscape of learning has shifted dramatically to a new mindset for all of us, I  definitely want my children to succeed,”  Suggs said. “Therefore, I will accommodate and supplement their learning in any way possible.”

Wright shared similar sentiments, saying, “From a parent point of view, I found myself reaching further to make sure my children are learning.”

“I do feel like there is going to be some, some achievement gap that we’re going to have to close as a mom,” Wright said. “I have been pushing my children for reading all through the summer.”

Chia Suggs oversees virtual learning for her children, Kayla and Chase. Both children are enrolled at Clayton County Schools. (Courtesy / Chia Suggs)

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