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'Compassion over compliance' - How Hall County social workers and teachers are helping students adjust and cope from the pandemic
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Johnson High teacher Scott McConnell helps students Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, with their work during class. - photo by Scott Rogers

“Is everything OK?”— Shelly Black, teacher at Gainesville High School, has made it a point to check in with her students since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Recently, one of her students told her she wouldn’t be able to complete an assignment. The student later revealed it was because there was ongoing abuse in her home, Black said.

“One student contacted me about abuse in their home and said she was transitioning into a new home and didn’t have access to WiFi to complete an assignment,” Black said. “It makes you realize students are facing a lot at home.”

As schools have adapted to serving students virtually and in person, teachers and social workers have also noticed the impact of the pandemic on students. As a result, teachers have adjusted their strategies and focus.

Black, who teaches special education and ninth grade mathematics, said the pandemic has affected students’ attendance and families’ priorities. When the virus first shut down in-person classes, Black noticed a drop in attendance as some students started working to help support their family financially. Others faced financial woes and were displaced into homeless or women’s shelters. 

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In some ways, Black said she felt the pandemic tightened the bond between teachers and students. Now if a student is absent, teachers are swift to ensure they’re safe and healthy. If a student is acting differently or upset, there is more of an emphasis to make sure everything at home and mentally is OK, she said. 

“For some strange reason, I feel like it's made the teachers and the students grow a little closer. All of us have known somebody who's been sick or has been affected by the pandemic and by COVID,” Black said. “So now we’re seeing the simple question, how are you, mean something different and deeper.”

Ursula Harris, social worker for Gainesville City Schools, works with the homeless student population. Harris said without a parental figure present, she often assumes the “motherly role” and assists students with meeting academic demands. For these students, Harris said they have two main priorities, staying COVID-19 free and surviving with food in their stomachs each night. Consequently, school assignments are “the least of their worries.”

“When the pandemic first hit, these kids lost the school building and the roof over their heads they were accustomed to,” Harris said. “Then and now they’re asking me ‘how can I get this done, how can I get help?’”

Harris and social worker Laura Etheridge were tasked with locating missing children in the district who have not made contact or reported to virtual or in-person learning. Etheridge said some families moved to a different state, returned to Mexico or were afraid to return their children to school. While most missing children have been found, Etheridge said a few were never located. 

Harris said additional emphasis has been put on the mental health and emotional support of all students. 

Harris and other social workers are on the lookout for any indicators of stress or pandemic-related PTSD from students during the first few weeks back in the classroom. However, students and all faculty have been instructed and trained to be patient and accommodating. 

“The (Gainesville) superintendent would say, you know, compassion over compliance. You just got to learn to be flexible,” Harris said. “There are no rules, there is no roadmap. So every day may look a little different and you do what you have to do.”

Scott McConnell, who teaches in the mathematics department at Johnson High School in Hall, said teachers received training on mental health awareness and on how to ensure students have access to resources and professionals. McConnell said COVID-19 only adds to the usual obstacles and distractions students and families face. Instead of “hounding” students to turn in an assignment, he asks the student if they’re understanding the material or need any accommodations. 

Often his students prioritize work or caring for their siblings after school so McConnell created a YouTube channel where he uploads his lectures for students to view at their own pace. 

“Their home life, priorities and stress right now as everyone faces this pandemic comes before my deadlines,” McConnell said. “My students know we’ll work together to get it done and learn.”

There’s been instances when students admitted they needed food to take home or vented about personal struggles. McConnell said his classroom is an open and private space for students. 

As the country, students and adults cope with the pandemic, McConnell hopes teachers and schools can serve as a safe haven for his students. 

“I just want you to leave my classroom being OK. I want them to know they can come here to talk or grab extra food for home,” McConnell said. “My hope is they’re OK when they leave and know my classroom is a safe space.”

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