Although students between the ages of 6 and 16 are required to attend school in Georgia, thousands of metro Atlanta students haven’t been able to consistently participate in online learning or still remain “non-engaged” even as some districts have resumed in-person classes.
When Georgia schools shifted to online learning in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, metro Atlanta districts made massive efforts to distribute technology devices and Wi-Fi hotspots to students without them.
Even so, thousands of students haven’t been able to consistently participate in online learning.
Even in Fulton County, which has resumed in-person classes, about 3,000 students are considered “non-engaged.”
Students between the ages of 6 and 16 are required to attend school in Georgia. But instead of penalizing students and families for not showing up, school districts are taking a more supportive approach due to the COVID-19-related hardships many families face.
‘Compassion Over Compliance’
The DeKalb County School District (DCSD) has been learning remotely since the pandemic started. Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris says when the school year started, about 89% of students were participating in online learning.
It’s really not about, ‘Hey, you’re not here. X, Y, or Z is going to happen.’ It’s more, ‘How can we support your family during this time?’
–DeKalb Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris
“Everyone [DCSD employees] really worked feverishly over those first few weeks to ensure that all students that needed a school-issued device received one, as well as donations from community leaders, elected officials, some celebrities, just really coming together and making sure that we got the devices in the hands of the students,” she said.
Now, Watson-Harris said, the percentage of students who can participate is about 97%. That means about 3% of students — or roughly 3,000 kids — are considered “non-engaged.”
“I have to give our state superintendent [Richard Woods] credit for coining this phrase, but it’s something that we’ve adopted here, it’s really ‘compassion over compliance,’” Watson-Harris said. “So, it’s really not about, ‘Hey, you’re not here. X, Y or Z is going to happen.’ It’s more, ‘How can we support your family during this time?'”
Denise Revels has seen this first hand.
She’s DCSD’s coordinator of social work services. She and her team have visited students’ homes when they haven’t been able to log on. She says some parents of younger kids have trouble helping them with technology.
“So we’ve had to supplement that with giving them hardcopy packets at times because the technology just wasn’t working for them,” Revels said. “It created almost a barrier.”
Revels said DeKalb’s social workers make home visits to figure out what families need and then help fill those needs if they can.
“Sometimes you need to actually just sit with someone and just look at them eye to eye and say, ‘Are you OK? I’m here for you,’” she said. “So staff members have been doing that when that’s been needed.”
And while districts, including DeKalb, have set up sites to distribute free food for families, Revels said a lot of families can’t get there because they don’t have reliable transportation.
“When you think about parents having to walk because those food boxes we were giving out … were heavy, they had milk in there, and they had Ragu sauce, they had canned goods,” she said. “So, a lot of the social workers did end up providing transportation or just dropping the food off.”
Revels said some social workers ended up ordering pizzas for families so they have something to eat. She said in addition to visiting students’ homes, her team has visited hotels where some DeKalb families live as well.
Making The Connection
Like DeKalb, students in Atlanta Public Schools have also been learning remotely since March. APS officials say at least 90% of kids are able to log on each day and participate. That means up to 5,000 students aren’t able to participate.
“We know for some students those barriers have been … maybe mental health or some difficulty with housing and things of that nature,” said Dr. Katika Lovett, APS’s assistant superintendent for student services.
Lovett said schools are constantly working with families to figure out what’s keeping kids from logging into class.
“For some students, the engagement piece is simply an issue of connectivity,” she said.
Anita Williams, chief of schools for APS, said some connectivity problems can be solved by a home visit.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as there’s no other adult in the home tab to assist the kid,” Williams said. “So just a staff member going [to the home] and saying, ‘This is how you log on, this is how you do this.’”
But sometimes it’s more complicated.
APS — like DeKalb, Clayton, Cobb, Gwinnett and Fulton counties — has armed families with laptops and Chromebooks and has handed out free Wi-Fi hotspots. But hotspots can get overwhelmed, and devices aren’t always reliable. So the district has come up with new solutions.
“Schools have even created plans that allow students to come in [to the school] for up to two days a week and maybe even connect [to the internet] in some cases,” Lovett said.
Many Happy Returns?
In Fulton County, students have returned to in-person classes. Even so, it has about the same number of “non-engaged” students as DeKalb — just over 3% or 3,000 kids.
Cliff Jones, Fulton’s chief academic officer, said there are typically three reasons why students may still be “non-engaged.” One hurdle, like Revels mentioned, is technology. Parents of younger children may not be able to set up everything the student needs to partake in online learning.
The other two, Jones says, are usually related to high school students.
“They are home, taking care of their siblings,” Jones said. “They’re not engaged with school, but they’re engaged in life and trying to navigate this unprecedented time. We’re hearing also from the older kids … they’re working. Many of our families are impacted economically during this time of COVID, in ways that are truly heartbreaking. So the older kids are having to work to go out and bring money and food home.”
As metro Atlanta faces a likely surge in COVID-19 cases, districts like Fulton, DeKalb and APS have all come up with plans to resume in-person classes after winter break ends the first week in January.
Schools are also preparing for these “non-engaged” students to eventually return to school. They’re increasing services like counseling and tutoring and will offer free summer programs.
But Cliff Jones, with Fulton County Schools, says students don’t need to wait for the new school year to return.
“We want to invite them back when they want to come back,” he said. “Please just come back. If that’s what you are ready to do as a family, we’ll take you. It doesn’t have to start in August.”
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