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School’s out for … the duration
BCS to provide resources, check on students, help 12th-grade to graduate, aim for ’20-21
Benjamin Wright, a Sallie Zetterower Elementary School fifth-grader, participates in a Zoom classroom with online classmates and teachers Anna Perkins and Misty Anderson. At-home lessons are being offered, but not graded or required, by the Bulloch County Schools during the closure. - photo by Courtesy of Allison Wright

While continuing to provide learning resources for voluntary use and having teachers check in with students twice a week, Bulloch County Schools officials have settled on capping the for-credit, graded portion of the 2019-2020 school year with the third nine-week period.

It ended March 13.

The school year would ordinarily contain a fourth nine weeks. But school has now been out since a holiday on March 16 was followed by the initially temporary, local cancellation of schools for the COVID-19 pandemic. Next week would have been spring break, and now Gov. Brian Kemp’s order this week closed all Georgia public schools for the remainder of the term.

For Bulloch County’s students, that school year would have continued to May 22, and now has been cut short by one-fourth of the planned 177 class days. Some of the remaining days would have been spent in review and testing.

Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson said the Georgia Department of Education has been “proactive in seeking waivers from both the federal and the state level to basically take the pressure off of the school systems” and in keeping them informed.

All standardized testing requirements, such as for Georgia Milestones and End of Course Tests, have been waived and testing cancelled. Even the state accountability report on school performance, the College and Career Ready Performance Index, or CCRPI, has been cancelled for the current school year.

“They have done a good job of alleviating the stress, and I think a lot of things are starting to settle down,” Wilson said Friday.  “I think we’re all just having to come to terms with, the end of the third nine weeks was the end of the school year.”


Why not online?

University System of Georgia schools such as Georgia Southern University and East Georgia State College have moved most of their for-credit courses to online formats. Some private elementary through high schools and have done so as well, and metro-Atlanta public school systems are attempting it.

But Bulloch County Schools will not, foremost because of unequal access to the internet across a large rural county with families of widely varied financial means.

“We don’t have equitable access to online for all of our kids, so what we’ve been focused on is how do we basically take that snapshot of the third nine weeks, how do we determine where kids are – especially those who are needing to graduate – making sure that any needs in the content that had already been covered are met, catching them up to where they needed to be for graduation or whatever is next,” Wilson said.


Chromebooks available

The school system does have a “one-to-one” supply of Chromebook laptops for every student in grades 2-12. These are now available for students to check out through their schools for home use, said Hayley Greene, Bulloch County Schools public relations director.

“Any of our students that don’t have technology at home but have internet and need a device to be able to do their dual-enrollment options or use the digital resources that their teacher or the district are providing, then they could have access to a Chromebook,” she said.

However, Greene pointed out that the lack of internet service in some homes would not be the only obstacle to putting the Chromebooks to use for required instruction.

Some students are home alone, with parents having to work, and some single parents are home with multiple children. Younger children could not be taught online courses without supervision, and some special needs students require accommodations not available at home, Greene noted.

“We’re not at all trying to deny people the opportunity to engage students in learning,” Wilson said. “We just don’t want to set requirements on new content that would become inequitable for students.”

Since March 23, the school system has made weekly instructional materials available in online and print form for students at all grade levels, and plans to continue this into May. Packets of printed materials for prekindergarten through eighth grade, new each week, are available at the schools and at the more than 50 sites used to deliver take-home free breakfast and lunch bags to children. For high schools students, individual teachers provide materials specific to courses.


Teacher contacts

Wilson has asked all teachers to check on their students twice each week by email, phone or online means.

“Everybody should know that is the expectation, that their children should be hearing from their teachers, one way or another,” he said.

The teacher contacts, he said, are aimed at checking on students’ wellbeing, showing that their teachers and schools care about them and “then engaging them in learning opportunities if they’re interested.”
Teachers are using many instructional technology and communication tools that students are accustomed to using in their regular classrooms, such as Schoology, Google Classroom, and Class Dojo, and new ones such as Zoom for online group sessions, Greene said. Teachers are also communicating with students and parents through Infinite Campus Messenger, Remind 101, email, social media groups and by phone, she said.

“As I’ve said in my regular emails to our staff as well as our meetings with administrators online, our ‘why’ has not changed, and our ‘what’ has not changed,” Wilson said. “Our ‘how’ is what we have to reinvent.”

Content-wise, the focus is on reinforcing what students have already learned this school year.

“We really have to get back to look at what our students need, emotionally and academically, and be prepared to show up and carry that forward, at the beginning of the next school year,” Wilson said.

For students moving up a grade after this incomplete school year, the new term scheduled to start in August will be a time to catch up as well as move forward, according to Assistant Superintendent of School Improvement Teresa Phillips.

“Curriculum and instruction for next school year will be adjusted to reflect any gaps that occurred due to the lost instructional days,” she said. “Additionally, students will be assessed to determine where they are, and teachers will work to meet students’ needs.”


Will they graduate?

Many current high school seniors face an uncertain situation. Some already had enough credits to graduate before this final semester, but that certainly isn’t the case for all.

“Teachers are working individually with any seniors who need to finish up coursework to earn credit for graduation,” Phillips said.

Meanwhile, Wilson expects further guidance from the state about graduation credits.

“I don’t think they’re going to do anything that’s going to put anybody at a disadvantage or in a bad situation, given what we’re all dealing with,” he said. “Then once we receive that guidance, we will adjust around that.”

Of course, if social distancing measures to halt the spread of the coronavirus continue long enough, traditional graduation ceremonies would be ruled out.

“And then, yes, there will be some sort of graduation,” Wilson said. “We are working on what that would look like, and we’ll figure that out in the next several weeks.”

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