Cherokee High School, Canton, Ga. Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Thomson200.
Earlier this month, my home county – Cherokee County, Georgia – was suddenly the talk of the nation. As a colleague observed a couple of weeks ago, the county hasn’t had this much outside attention since Sherman and the Union Army came through.
That attention has been, in my experience, relentlessly negative. CNN described the situation as a “stark reality.” NBC’s coverage quoted Cherokee County School District Superintendent Brian Hightower as saying “We know all parents do not believe the scientific research that indicates masks are beneficial” right below the headline. The Hill’s take? “School reopenings with COVID-19 offer preview of chaotic fall.”
As a parent of a middle schooler and a high schooler in the district, things look a little different here on the ground.
It is true that some people were unhappy with the school district’s plan. Demonstrators appeared outside a July school board meeting. Some teachers resigned, telling journalists they did so due to safety concerns. But media outlets also seemed less interested in talking to the many people who found the district’s plan reasonable.
In the middle of a pandemic, no school’s plan is going to be perfect. But on the whole, our family has been happy with the way our district has handled the transition under the circumstances. Do I wish the district would require masks? Yes. As Larry Elkin observed in this space in July, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has remained an outlier in resisting mask mandates, to the frustration of many Georgians who take COVID-19 seriously. The school district encourages and recommends masks, but does not mandate them for students right now. I expect my daughters to wear masks at school, regardless of the school’s requirements. The schools’ athletic departments have also encouraged student athletes like my daughters to be leaders for their peers. Student athletes want to be able to play; that won’t be possible with repeated, widespread quarantines.
One of my daughters has already experienced such a quarantine, after someone sitting near her in homeroom tested positive. Due to medical privacy concerns, we do not know if that student was symptomatic or was tested due to contact with other students. Regardless, my daughter worked remotely while she waited out her 14-day quarantine period.
As the national coverage observed, three high schools in Cherokee County have had to temporarily close due to the number of students in quarantine. (My daughter’s school was not one of these three.) But lost in the coverage is the fact that every reasonable parent knew that some schools would temporarily close this fall. The district created a set of procedures to follow when a student or staff member tests positive, and now it is following them. The school board approved the district’s reopening plan in early July, and the details were available online almost a full month before the first day of school.
Like all of us, students are facing a complicated and difficult situation. Like many teenagers, my daughter would prefer to be at school with her friends than confined to quarantine. But she is still grateful that school opened, even with the prospect of temporary isolation.
The Cherokee County School District allowed families to choose between in-person learning and digital learning; all students were eligible for either, though the district asked families to commit for the semester by mid-July. My husband and I gave our daughters the choice of remote learning or returning to in-person instruction. (We also asked our parents, who are at higher risk, if they were comfortable with the girls going back to school before we proceeded.) Both our daughters chose to go back, despite the greater scheduling flexibility they enjoyed in the spring.
They weren’t alone. In our school district, about 77% of students returned to the classroom. The other 23% opted for digital instruction. Teachers could also apply to provide online courses, though those who offer digital instruction will provide it from their classrooms, not their homes.
As parents, my husband and I would have listened to our daughters if they’d asked for digital learning. But on the whole, we prefer even interrupted in-person learning for a few reasons. First, the quality of the instruction is better. To give credit where it is due, the digital instruction my daughter received during her recent quarantine was better than what was available this spring. Some teachers are streaming lessons live. Others provide Power Point presentations and Microsoft Teams sessions to let students ask questions. In the spring, as everyone scrambled to make remote instruction work on little notice, students were not held to the same evaluation standards they would have been in person. Deadlines were often extended and students were allowed to redo subpar work. In contrast, during my daughter’s recent quarantine I saw her take a chemistry quiz via Teams with the teacher’s supervision. Expectations seem to be more in line with traditional instruction.
But while digital learning is improving, it still isn’t a full replacement for classroom interaction. And, at least in our district, online offerings are more limited. Students hoping to take Advanced Placement courses, for instance, can only do so in person.
Second, and importantly, middle schoolers and high schoolers truly do need social interaction outside the family. One of my daughters could still see some of her friends during softball season, but the other badly missed the outlet school provided. And while concerns about large groups are not unfounded, it is worth noting that kids have been clustering in groups all summer – especially high schoolers. Youth sports, including (indoor) basketball, and camps have operated here in Georgia. Even if schools hadn’t reopened, teens in Cherokee County were not all sitting at home.
And, while these factors do not apply to my family, it is worth remembering that school can be a lifeline for kids who face problems at home, especially food insecurity. The school district has committed to providing meals for distance learning students who need them. But parents must pick them up during a one-hour window during a traditional workday. This may not always be possible.
Of course some kids cannot safely return to in-person instruction, due to preexisting conditions (theirs or family members’) or other extenuating circumstances. For their sake, I am glad that distance learning remains an option and seems to be improving as schools learn how to best provide remote instruction.
The truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution under our current circumstances. The risks of COVID-19 are real, but they aren’t distributed equally. Differences not only between states, but between counties within a state, can mean that different solutions are practical, or even possible. Of course no one wants any kids – or teachers, or other staff members – to get sick. But it worth noting that while a lot of coverage includes the number of cases (89 students across the district as of Aug. 21), fewer outlets provide the context of the sizes of these schools’ student bodies. The school district has 42,000 students, about 30,000 of whom are attending classes in person.
Until we have an effective vaccine, treatment or both for COVID-19, schools will have to respond to students or teachers who test positive. Having plans for quarantines or closures is only common sense. But providing a means for in-person learning, as much as possible, is a net positive for most students. We don’t know how long it will be before we can return to anything that looks like pre-2020 instruction. In the meantime, I am grateful that our school district is doing their best to balance competing needs under tough conditions – despite the heat they are taking in the national media.