GAINESVILLE – Georgia Ninth District Congressman Doug Collins and his wife, Lisa, hosted a roundtable discussion Monday evening to hear from both school districts operating in Hall County about their plans, and their needs, as they prepare to reopen later this month.
As of this writing Hall County plans to welcome students back on campus August 24th, while Gainesville City Schools will begin August 17th exclusively online before reconvening on campus September 8th.
Representative Collins said what concerned school leaders was a longtime interest of his. “I’m glad to have Lisa here tonight, because the last time, frankly, we were in this room (conference room at Hall County School’s District Office) we were finding out about retirement.”
Lisa Collins retired this spring after thirty years of teaching elementary students in Hall County Schools.
“We wanted to have this tonight to see just what we can do from a federal perspective; what is the local perspective; and how can we be a helpful mouth piece to help you get the message out of what’s going on in your systems and how each are different,” Collins explained.
On hand representing Gainesville City Schools were School Superintendent Dr. Jeremy Williams, Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy Principal Dr. Wesley Roach, Gainesville Middle School teacher Steven London, school system Athletic Director Adam Lindsey and Penny Fowler, Gainesville City School Nutrition Director.
Participating for Hall County Schools were School Superintendent Will Schofield, Hall County School Executive Director of Special Education Dr. Karla Swafford, Hall County School Board Vice-Chairman Nath Morris, and Cheryl Jones, Director of School Nutrition.
The vital importance of in-person learning was a common thread woven throughout the roundtable discussion.
“The goal is to be face-to-face,” Dr. Jeremy Williams began. “We all want to be face-to-face with the smiles and the relationships and the interactions. If we don’t have that foundation we really don’t know what kind of school year we’ll have.”
Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield agreed with his counterpart’s assessment. “It didn’t take a pandemic for us to know that most people don’t learn very effectively online.”
Schofield added that an in-school environment provides peripheral benefits for students. “The protective factors that schools provide are nowhere to be found with virtual learning. I watch my own children and they struggle with this online format. The services that are provided in the public schools are essential.”
Lisa Collins agreed with both superintendents, adding that the learning challenges fostered by a virtual-only experience go well beyond just the students.
Ms. Collins’ last months as a teacher were spent teaching online and she quickly witnessed the added challenge involved in teaching her students while they were at home. “There was a lot of teaching of the parents, if you will, just as much as it was for the kids.”
“So much of the teaching had to come from the parents,” Collins continued. “The biggest thing we dealt with was teaching the parents how to help their child.”
Gainesville Middle School history teacher Steven London agreed with the need for students to return to the classroom. “As far as online learning, I don’t think it’s going to be very effective even with our best efforts. Adults can choose to go to online college but most choose not to for the exact same reasons…because it is not as effective.”
Dr. Karla Swafford said that the reality of online ineffectiveness is amplified in the realm of Special Education. “We cannot… replicate…in someone’s home, in a virtual environment, what we can do with a student in the classroom.”
School board member Nath Morris said efforts to determine best-use practices for classrooms in the Hall County School District have been a challenge, but it’s one the schools will overcome. “In the past we have concentrated on what is the best way to set up a classroom for learning, and it’s not the same for social distancing.”
Dr. Williams echoed Morris’ opinion about how school will probably look very different when it reopens. “We’ve got to be conditioned to think differently.”
Collins asked Gainesville Athletic Director Adam Lindsey how sports, particularly football, were handling the pandemic. “There is no such thing as social distancing in football. How are you dealing with this?”
“I kind of feel sometimes like we’re the guinea pig for the school systems right now, to kind of see how all of this works, and what cases pop up and how we deal with them,” Lindsey responded candidly.
“But our coaches and our kids are thriving and loving the opportunity to be back together,” he said. He added that online team meetings between coaches and players exceeded 95-percent participation.”
“And this is one conversation that is very different from one school district to the next,” Lindsey said. Gainesville plans to allow full attendance at home games while Hall County schools have yet to determine its policy, but Schofield said it will likely be different. “To just open the gates and say anybody who wants to can come is probably not going to happen,” Schofield replied.
“That is exactly why we have these meetings,” Collins said. “We have these meetings so this kind of stuff can get out and be discussed.”
After the meeting Collins said he felt like the roundtable discussion was beneficial.
“The educators want to get back, the parents want to get back, mostly the kids want to get back,” Collins said. “But there just needs to be an assurance that there has been a thoughtful process, and they also need to know the downside of not starting back.”