School of Thought

COVID-19 has changed everything — and education is no exception

Illustrations by Sharna Fulton

“We’re in the same storm, but not the same boat.” It’s a saying we’ve heard before, but it’s been especially resonant lately. COVID-19 has affected us all to some degree, but in tremendously different ways.

Some have been able to relish the time spent nestled together with family or in their own little cocoons; others have been on the front lines, working tirelessly to save lives. Some have felt the mere inconvenience of having to do things differently, while many more have experienced the heartache of not being able to see their loved ones, the crisis of lost livelihoods and businesses or the devastating loss of beloved friends or family members.

Education in the time of COVID has been a microcosm of the different ways people have weathered this storm. In Savannah alone, the experiences have been vast: Some families have been able to send their children back to school with confidence in their safety. Others have the grueling task of working full time from home while also homeschooling their children. Still others can’t send their children to school, but also can’t stay home with them.

It’s a conundrum unlike anything we’ve seen before, but there’s one common thread: Everyone is doing their best. Below, local parents, educators and students share their own experiences, across a range of learning options.

Homeschooling During the Pandemic

“With homeschool, you basically do your homework during class. I used to get home from dance and be done with dinner at 9 p.m., then maybe go to bed at 11 p.m. because I would have homework.”

—Reise Moran, 13

Kerri Moran’s three daughters were students at Blessed Sacrament Catholic School when schools began shutting down last spring. For many, the exhaustion was just beginning. But 13-year-old Reise, a competitive dancer who pushes herself to do her best in all areas, began getting a full night’s sleep for the first time in a long time.

“It freed her up to be a kid still,” Moran says. So when Reise approached her about homeschooling for the 2020–21 school year, Moran said yes. They found a program they liked called NorthStar Academy that allowed Reise to work on her own time.

“Homeschooling has been a lot easier,” Reise shares. “With homeschool, you basically do your homework during class. I used to get home from dance and be done with dinner at 9 p.m., then maybe go to bed at 11 p.m. because I would have homework.”

Reise also estimates she’s actually able to learn more compared with kids currently in school, who incur time-consuming (and potentially distracting) COVID precautions. “I’m lucky to get a lot more learning in.”

After missing their friends through spring and summer, Moran’s other daughters, 10-year-old Jojo and 7-year-old Alannah returned to school. But Jojo, craving normalcy, discovered that nothing about school during COVID felt normal. Overwhelmed, she asked to homeschool as well.

Moran ended up leaving the family’s insurance agency to focus on homeschooling her daughters. “I said, ‘I can’t do this! These girls need to be taught!’ It was hard,” she says, stressing her better appreciation for teachers and the difficult work it takes to educate a child.

For Vanessa Platacis, an artist and professor, the choice to keep her 8-year-old son home from a local private school was “heartbreaking,” but clear.

“Too much was unknown about the virus at the time, and we were concerned about community spread and the ongoing uncertainty of the situation. Our main focus was to create a safe and stable routine for him.”

While her son misses his friends, they have regular outdoor playdates and use their iPads to live chat and play video games with each other. And as a family, they are enjoying their time together.

“The tragedy of this pandemic is compounded by the enormous workload,” Platacis says. “[But] homeschooling and working from home has provided us with more family time than we have ever had otherwise.”

Lana Salter, another working mom, has had a similar experience. Although her second grader ultimately returned to school at Tybee Island Maritime Academy, she made the decision — after much back and forth — for her middle-school-age children to stay home. So far, it’s been the right move.

“We talk about it almost daily, how great it’s been to have the kids home with us, especially our eighth graders,” Salter says. “They’re growing up fast, and we would never have had this much time with them had they been in school. It will be hard to see them go back, I think.”

Private Schools

“Face masks have been required of all students beginning at age 4. That’s been our most important mitigation tactic, and based on all our research and the input of a panel of doctors we talk with on a weekly basis, that’s the most important thing any of us can do right now.”

—Kef Wilson, head of school for Savannah Country Day

Private schools have worked diligently to create safe learning spaces and to accommodate families’ different needs and decisions.

“We spent all summer trying to determine if we were to open, what we would do to make it safe. We’ve learned things over time, and our procedures have evolved, but certain things have been constant,” says Kef Wilson, head of school for Savannah Country Day School.

“Face masks have been required of all students beginning at age 4. That’s been our most important mitigation tactic and based on all our research and the input of a panel of doctors we talk with on a weekly basis, that’s the most important thing any of us can do right now.”

Morning screenings take place at SCDS before students leave their car, and renovations helped create larger classrooms better suited to social distancing.

Lunchtime has also changed, since students would normally congregate en masse in a cafeteria, and masks can’t be worn while eating. Now, upper school students eat outside, while middle and lower school students eat in classrooms outfitted with desk shields. And thanks to a generous donor, the school was able to install a Global Plasma Solutions needlepoint bipolar ionization system to improve indoor air quality and, in theory, kill the virus.

Even with safety protocols in place, Wilson says about 3 percent of SCDS students choose to attend school virtually. Virtual learning is also available when a student either tests positive or has been exposed to the coronavirus and has to quarantine (while the school has had positive cases, Wilson says there has been no transmission on campus).

The options are helpful for students, but add another layer of complexity for teachers: even if they don’t have hybrid students, teachers still have to be prepared for a student who may become quarantined, whatever the reason.

“The teachers have definitely had much more work to accommodate all of these changes,” says Stuart Ann Goldberg, whose daughters attended SCDS virtually for three weeks during the birth of their baby brother. “For example, we had parent- teacher conferences by Zoom, and [the girls’] teachers made individual slide shows of their work to be able to discuss and show. All the small things add up.”

Wilson concurs. “Teachers are stressed out, there’s no doubt about it; it is a hard and stressful way to teach,” he says. “But they’re doing great.”

Public Schools

“There’s a lot of frustration on all sides. It’s harder to get students engaged in the lessons, and there are so many distractions pulling students away from their schoolwork. The sheer amount of time spent staring at a screen is a strain for both students and teachers, and I think we all miss the fun of being in the classroom.”

—Meghan Quinlan, teacher at Sol C. Johnson High School

All Savannah-Chatham County public school system students have been remote to some degree.

Half of the students who have opted to return (and whose teachers have) are physically in school on Mondays and Tuesdays. The other half are in school Thursdays and Fridays.

“Wednesday is an independent learning day,” explains Stacy Jennings, director of communications for SCCPSS. “It’s an instructional day where kids may have tutorials, group meetings or one-on-one instruction online with their teachers.” They also do deep cleaning on Wednesdays while no one is in school and have applied all the standard COVID safety protocols.

Meghan Quinlan, who teaches English and dance at Sol C. Johnson High School and is currently working remotely, spoke to the different ways students are responding to the strange circumstances.

While some prefer the independence and flexibility to complete work on their own terms, others are struggling with the lack of oversight and structure of being in a classroom, she says.

That’s been exacerbated by the fact that many of Quinlan’s students are also working (sometimes during school hours) and taking care of others in their household. “Some students and parents are hard to get a hold of at all,” she says.

Jennifer Allard is a single mother and a massage therapist whose son Wyatt, a seventh-grader at Coastal Middle School, attends in-person school on Thursday and Friday and is remote the rest of the week.

“He wanted to go back to school because, you know, he’s a kid,” Allard says. Although Allard says her son is happy to have even limited socialization, it was easier for him when everything was virtual and all assignments were posted in one place.

“Now, I’ll get an automated email saying he owes different things that he says he turned in.” Allard explains that the hybrid structure has had other discouraging ripple effects: Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays “all feel like Saturdays to him,” she says, and “as the mom, he’s just not going to listen to me like he would a teacher.”

“There’s a lot of frustration on all sides,” agrees Quinlan. “It’s harder to get students engaged in the lessons, and there are so many distractions pulling students away from their schoolwork. The sheer amount of time spent staring at a screen is a strain for both students and teachers, and I think we all miss the fun of being in the classroom.”

But there have been positive aspects to all the technology. “The opportunity to ask questions privately in Zoom chats has made some quieter students more vocal than ever before,” Quinlan says, adding that the access to technology has been a game-changer in terms of a students’ abilities to do research and writing on their own schedules.

Of course, it’s tough to access technology without a device, but Jennings is happy to report that SCCPSS is nearing its goal of a one-to-one device-to-student ratio after the school board approved the purchase of 14,000 additional Google Chromebook laptops.

Other blessings are evident, too: “Our superintendent, Dr. M. Ann Levett, likes to remind everyone to ‘unpack our patience.’ We’ve really seen the best of our school families in their ability to support one another. You start to understand the different challenges that some folks are facing, and I think that does help us become more compassionate and empathetic towards one another,” she says. “Everyone has risen to the occasion — and we’re really, really proud of our teachers.”

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