Coronavirus, Education, News, Technology

Switch To Online Learning Could Provide ‘Stress Test’ For Metro Atlanta Schools

Schools are preparing for in-person classes in January. Some schools will need to offer more support services when students return after missing class due to Covid-19.
Schools are preparing for in-person classes in January. Some schools will need to offer more support services when students return after missing class due to Covid-19.
Credit Ian Palmer / for WABE

Starting Monday, March 16, several metro Atlanta public school districts and all 26 of the state’s colleges and universities will make the switch to online learning due to coronavirus concerns.

Schools say they’re ready for the change. But experts say there could be some unforeseen challenges to virtual classrooms.

Providing Access

The biggest challenge for a lot of K-12 districts is making sure students and teachers have internet access and a device to use.

“It is incumbent upon districts to be transparent and open and say, ‘This is our plan, we will have a contingency to ensure that learning takes place for all of our students,’” says Michael O’Sullivan, executive director of education advocacy group Georgia CAN.

Most metro Atlanta public school districts — including Cobb, Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Clayton and Atlanta Public Schools — do have contingency plans. But Atlanta Superintendent Meria Carstarphen admits APS has some limitations.

“Not everybody has all of the technology they need, and all of our teachers and students don’t have access to Wi-Fi and things of that sort, and those are things that we’re asking our partners to step up and help us on,” Carstarphen told WABE’s “Closer Look.”

Internet providers like AT&T and Comcast are offering free internet access to public school students while schools are closed. Carstarphen said APS is working with Comcast to offer devices to students as well.

But students who don’t have internet access can still complete assignments if schools meet them halfway, according to Ricardo Miguel Martinez, president of the Latino Association for Parents of Public Schools (LAPPS).

“Most kids have at least one cellphone in the home, and ensuring that the assignments are easy to complete will make a huge difference,” Martinez says. “And by ‘easy’ we mean that most of the work is multiple choice so answering the question is as easy as checking a box, which obviously is very mobile-friendly.”

The Great Unknown

Although districts and colleges say they’re ready for the change to online learning, Michael O’Sullivan of Georgia CAN says this is new territory for Atlanta schools. It reminds him of an old quote by former boxing champion Mike Tyson.

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” he says. “This could be it. We’ve got a plan, but you never know.”

Still, O’Sullivan says students and teachers could get a preview of what’s to come in the realm of online learning.

“It’s exciting to see the embrace of virtual education because that’s, I think, the next big frontier in learning as it improves … and there is a lot of potential that can come from that,” he says. “So, what happens over the next few weeks, could have a potentially profound effect going forward.”

There’s also a lot schools don’t know yet, says Doug Levin, the founder and president of EdTech Strategies, a firm that researches education technology policies.

“Imagining that it will be a simple sort of one-for-one replacement to the face-to-face experiences that [schools] are used to providing, I think, is likely quite fanciful,” he says.

Levin says most students probably won’t learn as much in a virtual classroom. There are various reason for that, he says, from distractions at home to different learning styles among students.

However, Levin says school districts and colleges can learn a lot from the switch to online learning because it will be a “stress test” for their technology systems.

“Even school systems that worked fine with students using technology in the schools, it’s something different when the vast majority of students in a district are online at the same time going through the school network remotely,” he says.

Most metro Atlanta school districts plan to make the switch for a couple of weeks. However, Levin says any glitches that come up can help them better prepare in case they have to shut down longer.