The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented experience in countless ways.
Among its previously unheard of adverse impacts was the three-month closure of schools in Georgia.
Staff from the Georgia Department of Education shared a statewide public education update Monday during the first meeting of the state Senate’s Committee on Education and Youth since the pandemic temporarily halted the legislative session earlier this year.
“We know that COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on what seems to be every aspect of our lives, and public education is no different,” said Tiffany Taylor, deputy superintendent of policy, flexibility and external affairs for the Georgia Department of Education.
Two key issues came to the forefront quickly for school districts across the state, Taylor said. Those were providing students with continued access to school meals and ensuring families have access to internet connectivity and digital devices for distance learning.
Schools closed in March, including Glynn County Schools, which emptied classrooms March 16 and moved directly into remote learning.
“Many of our students receive their only meals at school so it was imperative that they continue to have access to these meals,” Taylor said.
From March 16 to the end of May, school nutrition staff across the state served more than 29.2 million meals.
“A lot of our districts really stepped up and provided a lot of meals in their local communities in a very fast way,” said Linette Dodson, state director of the school nutrition program. “They basically adopted a new business model over the course of the weekend to adjust to the service that they provided.”
The state department provided numerous resources throughout the final months of the school year, including professional learning courses, flexibility in testing and internet access services at a reduced cost.
State officials quickly learned, though, that internet connectivity for students throughout Georgia is much less accessible than initially thought.
The state education department surveyed schools at the start of the pandemic to find out how many students would have access to devices outside of school. They learned that 528,000 devices need to be purchased statewide to put laptops into children’s hands, and 187,000 MiFi devices, which provide personal wifi, are needed because of the high number of students who do not have internet access at home.
The department worked closely in April with telecommunication providers and asked them to become education partners by providing discounted wifi access plans to school districts.
“This was all out of the kindness really of the vendors out there to come together and stop and say, ‘We want to be an education partner. We want to help you all with what you’re dealing with,’” said Chris Shealy, director of technology services for the Georgia DoE.
As schools prepare to welcome back students in some format this fall, the state education department’s priorities are the immediate health and safety challenges that school systems will face, Taylor said, as well as the mental health needs students and staff will have and the instructional gaps that will need to be addressed.
“Supports are ongoing and are continuously being developed based on the needs of our districts and students,” Taylor said.
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