All schools in the State of Georgia are officially closed until April 24 and the Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission declared a second “local state of emergency,” leaving students, parents and staff to adjust.
As of 12:00 p.m. on March 27, there were 2001 total COVID-19 confirmed cases in Georgia, 56 deaths, and 32 confirmed cases in Clarke County.
On March 16, Governor Brian Kemp ordered all Georgia public schools to close until March 31 in response to COVID-19. Kemp’s order, as well as the CDC’s recommendation that no gatherings of 50 people or more take place within the next eight weeks have brought changes to teaching and learning, with all CCSD schools officially beginning digital learning on the week of March 16. In the same week, the Athens mayor and commission approved two consecutive local emergency declarations on March 16 and March 19.
The first declaration asked Athens residents to avoid public places and stay home as much as possible, enacting a voluntary shelter-in-place policy. Then on March 19 Mayor Kelly Girtz and the commission passed a mandatory shelter in place rule with exceptions for essential businesses, essential jobs, healthcare, and emergencies. The mandate also requires social distancing in public places, waives water fees for April, exempts business and alcohol license taxes and exempts the homeless from the shelter in place rule, though they are advised to seek shelter.
In the first announcement of school cancellation on March 12, CCSD interim superintendent Dr. Xernona Thomas closed CCSD for one week. Kemp’s order to close schools until March 31 extended school closure for another seven school days. Later, in a letter to the CCSD community, Dr. Thomas closed schools until April 7 as a result of the mayor and commission’s shelter in place ordinance.
“Athens-Clarke County is currently under a local emergency declaration of shelter in place until April 7, 2020. Therefore, the district will remain closed until April 7, 2020,” Dr. Thomas wrote in the letter.
Most recently Governor Kemp closed all Georgia public schools until April 24. Public colleges have already moved to online learning for the rest of the semester.
Hurdles of distance learning
In an email to Cedar Shoals staff, principal Antonio Derricotte updated teachers on the suspension of exams and extracurriculars and outlined the plan for distance learning.
“Teachers are expected to be accessible to students and staff between the hours of 9 a.m.-1 p.m.,” Derricotte wrote in the email. He also explained that all assignments are expected to review material already covered in class. These assignments should be due five days after students return to school and only graded as “classwork” – no quiz or test grades.
The rapid changes leave teachers and students trying their best to work within uncertain parameters.
“The first thing I wanted to do was keep (classes) on track. But then when we got the word that we couldn’t assign new materials, it put a bit of a stop on that,” said Ms. Sarah Milford, social studies department. Milford says that while limiting distance learning to review material may put classes behind schedule, the decision makes sense.
“Some people just don’t have the access at home (to technology and internet) and then there are a lot of people who just have different situations going on as far as how much work they could actually complete over this time. Not everybody is just stuck at home bored, they might have things they have to be doing,” Milford said.
While online learning may be a good way to slow the spread of COVID-19, it could also prove to be a challenge for students without access to technology and internet.
“We have already identified how many hotspots we have in the building and are going to be trying to reach out to see if people need a hot spot,” Derricotte said. “We realize that transportation continues to be an issue for some people so I’m not opposed to having us actually taking some hotspots to people to try to assist during this time.”
Derricotte hopes that students and families will communicate their needs so that students can continue to learn from home.
“We’re trying to put communication platforms in place. We want people to let us know what they need so that we can try to provide the best means to make sure that all students can learn,” Derricotte said.
As of March 16, Spectrum is offering free internet access for 60 days to households with K-12 and/or college students that do not already have a Spectrum subscription. Those who wish to enroll can call 1-844-488-8395.
Like the internet, food is a service typically provided at school that now must be provided through an alternative method. Because many CCSD students rely on school meals, the district has a student meal service in place. Starting March 17, meals are available for pickup at both Hilsman Middle School and Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary School from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. Meals are also delivered to select neighborhoods in CCSD.
In addition to logistical challenges, distance learning could prove difficult for students who learn best in a traditional environment.
“I’m more of a face-to-face person. Going to Khan Academy, it’s helpful and all, but I need someone to thoroughly explain it to me face-to-face and show me what needs to be done,” senior Kadeisha Camp said.
Like Camp, Milford worries about teacher-student communication.
“There are students who might have a question they might ask it if we were in class, but they’re not going to now. It’s going to be harder for them to reach out. I’m also worried about students not doing the assigned work and seeing it as kind of a vacation,” Milford said.
Standardized testing cancelled
Even for students with access to necessary resources, precautions against spreading coronavirus are creating challenges surrounding standardized testing and AP exams. College Board, the non-profit organization that creates and administers AP exams, the SAT, and other standardized tests, cancelled administration of the May 2 SAT. Testing sites administering the March 14 SAT were given the option to cancel due to COVID-19. Administration of the SAT at Cedar Shoals was cancelled, although the test was still administered in other locations across the country.
Instead of cancelling AP exams, College Board is cutting content from the tests and working on a version that students can take from home.
“AP curricula are locally developed and we defer to local decisions on how best to help students complete coursework. To be fair to all students, some of whom have lost more instructional time than others, the exam will only include topics and skills most AP teachers and students have already covered in class by early March,” said an update to the College Board’s informational page, also explaining that students will choose between two dates to take a 45-minute free response exam online.
If the unusual form of this exam is concerning for AP students, they should be aware of the way these exams are graded, says Milford.
“One thing that has given me a little bit of comfort is the fact that since the AP test is graded in relation to how everyone else does in the nation, if we don’t get through (all of the course’s content) we won’t be the only ones,” Milford said.
On March 16, the Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE) suspended all required standardized testing, including the Georgia Milestones, End-of-Grade assessments (EOG), End-of-Course assessments (EOC), and all other required testing in Georgia.
“I teach economics which has an EOC and when we first said that we were going to have a week out, I was already getting worried about how we were going to make sure that we got through all the material we needed to get through,” Milford said. “I think that since we’re going to be closed this long and since there are other schools that may be closed longer it makes sense to not hold people to that strict of a standard.”
Digital learning curve
Sophomore Mich Bodden understands that distance learning is better than staying at school.
“(Closing CCSD) is a really good decision because we need to figure out the public health crisis first before deciding to get back to school because health comes first before education,” Bodden said.
Katie Calkin, mother of two CCSD students, says distance learning is working well for her daughters.
“For my kids (digital learning) has been fine, because they’re both good at being self motivated. And they’re both really comfortable with computer skills and we have reliable wi-fi and a family culture that encourages you to do that kind of work. I do of course worry about students who it’s harder for them to sit still, it’s harder for them to stay concentrating for longer or their house is chaotic,” Calkin said.
Some teachers are using distance learning assignments to increase students’ awareness of COVID-19 and the effects it is having on the world. Milford assigned her classes an extra credit assignment where students find and evaluate sources that could be used by future historians as they study the COVID-19 outbreak.
“The main reason was less about ‘here’s something for you to do’ and more about ‘here’s a way for you to process what’s happening right now.’ For me, if there’s something that’s going on that is kind of traumatic or it’s alarming or just that I can’t really understand, it helps to sort through it and file it away,” Milford said. “ I made it extra credit instead of making it mandatory, partly because for some people that processing is not going to be useful, and it could even be detrimental.”
Milford hopes this assignment will be an opportunity to be thoughtful about the wide variety of places news is available and the ways those sources impact everyone.
“I’m hoping that people will pull from lots of different types of sources and see that our news comes from everywhere and it permeates every bit of our society. It’s not just CNN and the New York Times, it’s also Instagram and TikTok and it’s everywhere. For anything that happens in this world, there are a million different ways you can learn about it and that you can be affected by it,” Milford said.
Sacrifices and growth
Camp says to be safe she is not allowed to leave the house except for work, so she misses spending time with friends.
“I’m hoping that this pandemic won’t just ruin the rest of my senior year because this is my last year to enjoy the small things with my friends,” Camp said.
Camp says she was not planning to attend prom, but she has friends who are upset or disappointed at the prospect of cancellation. Cedar Shoals prom was previously scheduled for April 3. But now that schools will be closed until at least April 24, proms in the district are postponed.
“Our high schools are exploring alternate dates and locations and will keep our students updated on plans,” wrote Dr. Xernona Thomas in an update letter.
Another issue addressed in the letter from Dr. Thomas was that of the CCSD high school graduation ceremonies. These ceremonies traditionally take place in Stegeman Coliseum on the UGA campus, but campus is closed for the rest of this semester.
“Mr. Derricotte and Dr. Huff are working with our district office to ensure that we can honor our graduates and their accomplishments in an appropriate manner. Our goal is to maintain the date already designated for ceremonies. However, this will be dependent on limitations for large gatherings at that time. Additional graduation communications will be forthcoming,” Dr. Thomas said in the letter.
Still the Cedar community is working to push through new challenges. For example, Milford is encouraged as she sees teachers working together through the distance learning process with the school community coming together through Cedar Shoals.
“Cedar can be a hub. It’s a place where people can come to celebrate, but also to get resources and to get access to services. The way that CCSD, and Cedar in particular, has stepped up as far as making sure people have the technology they need, making sure students have the food that they need, things like that. I think that it can only help with making Cedar that hub,” Milford said.
Mr. Derricotte says that communication is the key tool in handling crises like these.
“When we try to put things in place and we have good communication, everything else takes care of itself. Our department heads, our instructional coaches, our admin staff and people have done a great job of trying to make sure that as we go through this process, we make it as seamless and easy as possible for everybody. That’s been a great kudos to the Cedar Shoals family – that we’re all pulling together to make sure this works for everybody,” Derricotte said.