As COVID turns education upside down, how are kids, adults coping?

“Schools aren’t structured for social distancing,” she said. A former teacher, she devised a plan to give her two boys, one in third grade like Waldrop’s, the other in fourth, what they had been missing online.

She raised money to create a Saturday school with more than a dozen students. Stationed in socially-distanced beach tents outside her home, they researched their own interests in chess, outer space, video production or animals — while chatting through walkie-talkies.

Elias speaks to his teacher using a walkie-talkie headset in Smyrna on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. Tracey Clark has been leading an experiential learning activity in her neighborhood cul-de-sac where students learn together while socially distanced in tents. (Rebecca Wright for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Elias speaks to his teacher using a walkie-talkie headset in Smyrna on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. Tracey Clark has been leading an experiential learning activity in her neighborhood cul-de-sac where students learn together while socially distanced in tents. (Rebecca Wright for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

This is how some parents are getting through this pandemic.

Many are ill-equipped for it. A third of Georgians reported they didn’t always have access to a computer or internet service this fall, according to researchers at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. Using U.S. Census data, they found that people in the lowest income bracket had it the worst, with 47{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} reporting limited digital access for young students.

COVID-19 has upended K-12 education in immeasurable ways. Many parents of younger children didn’t even register their kids for school this year. In Georgia, enrollment fell about 2{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1}, mostly in elementary school and more in kindergarten (nearly 10{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1}) when school is not compulsory.

Watching for effects on students

Experts have tried to gauge the damage.

A national survey of 1,328 middle and high school students found academic decline.

The survey, released by the National PTA and the National Education Association in mid-December, found that 58{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} reported doing “well” academically before the pandemic versus 36{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} during it. The percentage who were “struggling” academically more than tripled to 20{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1}. Nearly half were in the middle, just doing “OK” academically.

Students also were asked how they were handling the pandemic generally, and just over a quarter reported doing well. They said they missed friends and, importantly, teacher interaction. “I feel like a Zoom Zombie,” one explained in a focus group.

Even so, a slight majority said they were doing “OK” with pandemic life. They enjoyed spending more time with family and exploring hobbies.

“You see a lot of students that are thriving in this environment. They like being able to sleep in,” said Missy Egelsky, an executive with the firm that conducted the survey. They like learning at their own pace while wearing pajamas, she said. They are also escaping some common causes of teen anxiety: gossips and bullies, cliques and clothes, she noted.

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Academically, the pandemic appears to have affected the youngest kids the most. National scores from an alternative test used by more than 300 Georgia schools show reading more or less intact but math suffering. A study by NWEA, the organization behind the MAP Growth Assessments, inspected the scores from third grade through middle school, finding lower math gains than in the past, particularly among younger students.

The organization dismissed the results for children below third grade because they struggled with doing tests online. But Georgia districts that tested kindergarten through second grade in-person reported “alarming” results, as one official put it.

Deep divisions on opening schools

There is another unquantifiable cost of this pandemic: simmering disagreements about the safety of opening schools.

In Gwinnett County last July, a long-serving school board member was heard on a live mic saying she “could strangle him” after a lone board member opposed opening the schools.

In DeKalb County last September, a Black school board member who opposed a proposal to reopen schools elaborated, saying some would reject safety protocols.

“I guarantee you there’s going to be those who are gonna be defiant. You give an inch, they’re gonna take a yard,” she said. From there, the board member later contended she had said, “And their rights. And we know that.”

Others heard “whites.”

Parents and their children line along 10th Street NE near Piedmont Park on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, during a rally calling for the safe, immediate opening of all Atlanta and DeKalb County schools. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Parents and their children line along 10th Street NE near Piedmont Park on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, during a rally calling for the safe, immediate opening of all Atlanta and DeKalb County schools. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Pandemic politicization, once a national phenomenon, has seeped into communities.

“If you admit that there’s a problem, then you’re the problem because you’re bringing something up,” said Andrea Wellnitz, a mother in Oconee County who kept her daughters online and out of the schools for health reasons. She has been serving as a conduit on Facebook for parents and teachers who want to air concerns about COVID-19 transparency and safety — masks are encouraged but not mandated there — while remaining anonymous.

Wellnitz said her sources worry about repercussions for going public about in-person schooling.

Meanwhile, in DeKalb, Kelley Whitten fears being harassed for pushing to open schools that have been closed since March.

“Parents have experienced some scary, disturbing backlash,” Whitten wrote in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This was after an interview in which she had described a “super-divided” community and “nasty and ugly” reactions to parents like her.

Whitten helped to promote a recent parent protest at Piedmont Park. She said she had to quit her job to help out with the local parent “pod,” a small group of students who study online together, and worries that her son and the other kids in it are losing interest in learning on screens.

“They get bored. They ask when can they get off, when is it over,” she said in the interview.

Current struggles, future plans

School advocacy groups, such as the NEA and National PTA, say Congress must come up with billions to help schools.

Locally, the Cherokee County school board says it has spent an extra $9 million on “extraordinary COVID-19 related needs” this year and is asking the Georgia General Assembly for help when it meets in January. The board’s legislative wish list includes funding for transportation, safety, counselors, social workers, psychologists and nurses, among other things.

Gwinnett, the state’s largest school district, wants money for many of the same items. Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks told local lawmakers recently that furloughs may result from the $950 million excised from the state education budget this year as the pandemic threatened the state’s economy. He said Gwinnett got $5.8 million from the state for busing this year yet spends $93 million annually.

Students wearing masks arrive to Jackson Elementary School for the first day of school amid the coronavirus outbreak on Wednesday, August 26, 2020. HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Students wearing masks arrive to Jackson Elementary School for the first day of school amid the coronavirus outbreak on Wednesday, August 26, 2020. HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Schools are struggling with staffing, especially with many of their teachers in quarantine.

“We don’t have enough substitute teachers to backfill the vacant positions to even have school. And we have one school that’s closed in part as a result,” Mike Looney, the Fulton County Schools superintendent, told local lawmakers in early December. He said staff from the central office had been filling in.

Fulton was among more than two dozen school districts that moved some or all of their schools online in mid-December to finish out the last week of school before the holiday/winter break, according to the Georgia Department of Education. Cobb, Cherokee and Forsyth counties were among them.

Looney told the lawmakers there is no substitute for being with a teacher. “The research is clear,” he said, “traditional learning is superior to anything digital.”

He said he asked his school board to pay for a summer program to catch up kids who have fallen behind, but told the lawmakers it could take a “multiple year” effort.

“I don’t think one summer is going to be sufficient, to be honest with you.”

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