‘My biggest fear is that they will fall behind’

Local public schools get good marks from parents for virtual learning decision, but many problems remain

BACK-to-school looked a lot different as Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools students started virtually last week.

Elanda Pipes and Joel Fields have three children at Gadsden Elementary, and one at Derenne Middle School.

“The teachers are doing the best that they can, they’re stretched thin,” says Pipes. “These teachers are amazing, the things that they have to put up with. You can’t go to the school anymore and say ‘not my kid’, because now you see for yourself what your child does in school.”   

“As long as I’m sitting with my kids while they are doing their school work, they’re okay, it is a job. I have to stay on them everyday,” says Pipes. “It has to be done, parents have to stand in.”

click to enlarge Joel and Olivia Fields participing in virtual learning.
Joel and Olivia Fields participing in virtual learning.

Pipes agrees that SCCPSS made the correct decision to do virtual learning, “it’s not a good idea to put all of these kids back in school on top of each other, they absolutely did the right thing, now is not the right time to send students back into the classroom. I’m not going to throw my children in there, they are not going to be guinea pigs.”

Last spring, the family was issued one computer for their middle school daughter, and the other children had to share Elanda’s phone to do their work. 

Pipes and Fields requested three more SCCPSS computers, but only received one for their 3rd grade daughter, leaving their other two children without the technology to log in and be counted in attendance.      

According to the 38 page Parent Guidance Document, SCCPSS A School Reopening Guide to Virtual Learning, which can be found on the SCCPSS website, “Attendance will be defined by a student’s participation. Students will be considered in attendance when they are participating in active instruction and/or educational services. This will apply to in-person, virtual, remote, or hybrid models.  Examples include time spent working in the online platform, log-in activity, attendance during live instruction, submission of student assignments, and student/teacher interactions.”

The guide lists examples of actively participating: login and work in class/courses every day; participate in online class every day; complete and submit assignments or tasks by due dates; participate in group activities; communicate with teacher or staff as needed (online, email, or phone); check email daily and activities within the ITSL-LMS platform.

While the guide does address attendance tracking for students who do not have internet access through the submission of written work, Pipes and Fields were concerned that their children would fall behind if they could not participate in daily virtual learning with their teachers. 

The couple had to purchase two additional computers, which they could ill afford since Pipes is not able to work due to needing to stay home to help teach her children with virtual school.  

SCCPSS hopes to get 1:1 technology to every student who does not already have access, but there have been issues with sourcing 14,000 Chromebooks and 9,000 iPads as the demand has been high nationwide. Only part of the Chromebooks that were ordered arrived before school started, but the district hopes to have the remainder of the order sometime next month.

The Pipes-Fields children are on the free lunch program. Free and reduced lunches are available based on the student’s status from last year until September 30, but parents need to reapply; applications can be found on the SCCPSS website or they can contact their school for assistance.

A school bus will come around weekly, and the students can pick up their breakfast and lunch meals for the week at their regular stops.  

Onetha Bonaparte, SCCPSS School Nutrition Director, says, “the biggest thing to note is that breakfast is free, but lunch is based on the student’s status, i.e free, reduced, or paid. We are still trying to work out the details of how to manage payment at the bus stops, and what the bus routes are going to look like. Menus will be posted on the website, but are subject to change based on availability of items. Meals will still follow the same nutritional standards as if they were face-to-face.  All meals will be frozen with heating and storage instructions.”

Pipes concludes, “I hope that my kids will be okay. My biggest fear is that they’ll fall behind, I don’t want them to fall behind. The little ones can catch up, but I am most concerned about my 8th grader, she only has a few more years to catch up, I want her to get to walk across the graduation stage. I don’t know how they can pass/fail if it doesn’t get better. Our kids are going to fall behind and you can’t blame the parents or the children.”  

The first week was bumpy for the family, “everyday is something different, it is one big mess. It is interesting, I’m going to put it that way. I have learned something too.” 

Pipes is hopeful, “this is going to be a better week, we are going to make it happen as a family.”

Elanda Pipes is not alone in her fears and hopes.

Kim Watson has a 3rd grader who has Down syndrome.  

“Kids with special needs require more guidance, Liam’s teacher said that she would put on a hazmat suit to get back in the classroom with the kids,” says Watson.  

Watson also agrees that the district made the right call to start virtually this year, “safety first, not just for the kids, but also for the entire staff.  It is not black and white, it is 1,000 shades of grey.”

click to enlarge Chris and Kim Watson with their son Liam.
Chris and Kim Watson with their son Liam.

Watson says that in the spring, “it was hectic, getting Liam motivated, I had to sit with him, it was pure chaos. The teacher did the best that she could, but you could hear the background noises of other houses because some families didn’t mute.” 

Watson is concerned that her son is missing out on inclusion classes. “Liam is a super social kid, even though we had a good experience last year, he is not getting what he needs most, which is the interaction with other kids.”  

Kim says that in the spring her husband, Chris, “was an amazing help,” but since he is active duty military, he recently deployed with the 160th.

The first week of school did not go so well for the Watson family. “It’s horrible. No fault of his teacher. And we are only three days in, but the system crashed and Liam won’t stay engaged. I lost it on Friday, and Liam and I both were in tears. I fought for the best program for him, sold a home and moved. And all I can think is he not only needs more, he deserves it. There has to be a better way.”

Jo-Anna Dunn also wishes there was a better way. She has a preschool inclusion child who is non-verbal and has autism.  

Dunn watched all of the school board meetings this summer with bated breath. “There needs to be more options and accommodations for those who can’t follow plan A. My daughter can’t participate in virtual learning, there is no plan B or C for Mayson. I wish that the district would have had an option B and C.”

“How are they going to provide her with an education if that is something she can’t participate in? She needs to socialize and have face-time.”

“I hope that the district will listen and take more parents’ concerns into account, we all need to work together to make this happen.”

Dunn also has a 2nd grade daughter at Pooler Elementary, and a toddler. “The worst part is trying to keep some sort of structure at home, I have other children at home.” 

Dunn concludes, “I am very fortunate that I am a stay-at-home mom, there are many families that don’t have a parent at home, what happens to those kids?”

WHAT THEY'RE SAYING:

Dr. Joe Buck, School Board President

“Welcome to all of our students, parents and staff as we begin school again. It is to be a year unimagined just a few months ago, but we look forward to working with everyone as we strive to learn in a new environment. Our goal as a Board, with the Superintendent and her staff, is to be back learning face-to-face as soon as it is safe to do so. Please bear with us as we maneuver this new territory.”

Dr. Ann Levett, SCCPSS Superintendent 

“While navigating a public health crisis that remains fluid and uncertain, education can be an important stabilizing force for society. We are proud of the community we have built together during this unprecedented time. The road ahead is new for us all and may have bumps in it, but we will continue to be creative and make significant advances toward our shared goals.  Savannah Chatham County Public Schools will use a virtual learning model through, what appears to be based on current public health conditions,  the first several weeks of the academic year. Classes, assignments, projects, and assessments will be conducted and administered in innovative ways. The depth of resources assembled in such a short period of time is nothing short of phenomenal. We owe our instructional and technology teams a debt of gratitude for their ability to pivot and remake schooling in such a short time.”

Dr. Dionne Hoskins-Brown, District 2 

“My message to students about this school year is to embrace the opportunity to be a new you.  New approaches to learning online give new opportunities to master something new. If you weren’t great at something last year, this year is a new start. If you were excellent at everything, welcome to your next challenge. You can build on whatever reputation you had last year or create a new one because it’s a new world. No one expects you to be perfect at it because it’s new. So every student gets to be brand new.”

Shawn Kachmar, District 4

“None of us want to be in virtual school. We won’t go back to in-person, however, until we come together as a community to lower transmission and hospitalization rates.  Please encourage your friends and family to do their part to stop the spread of the virus.  And be extra patient and kind as we all start virtual school on a new platform.  We are all in this together.”

Michael Johnson, District 7

“During these unprecedented times, please know that the entire staff was hoping for in person learning to take place, unfortunately that is not happening right now. Everyone on the Board and all of the staff know how important it is to be learning in-person, and we are working to make virtual learning as meaningful as possible. Stay safe and please do your part to lower the numbers so we can get back to school and begin the process of getting back to normal.”

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