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Hall schools strike balance with year-end plans

Since transitioning to online learning in March, the Hall County School District has been working to strike the right balance between understanding trying circumstances and holding students to high standards. 

Earlier this week, the system announced in an email it will not allow grades during school from home to negatively affect final grades.

No Hall County student will receive a lower grade on their final report card than the one on their mid-semester report, though they can raise their grade based on school from home performance.

“We’ve had a lot of eyes and ears for considerations on what the possibilities were for grading and end of year grades, and it’s also something we’ve communicated with our board of education about,”  Assistant Superintendent Kevin Bales said. “Really, what we tried to do is stick to our vision and mission of being the most caring place on Earth, and character, competency and rigor for all. We said ‘What’s the most caring way to handle this?’”

Bales said the primary goal was to be understanding of the students and families most affected by COVID-19 and the switch to online learning. Stress related to family members dealing with the virus has caused the academic performance of some students to suffer, and lack of access to technology has caused others to fall behind during online learning. 

It’s a problem school systems around the country are struggling to solve, and Bales said Hall came to its final decision after analyzing the plans of around 25 other Georgia school districts.

“We reviewed their policies, and we really worked through and, like sometimes good educators do, we stole the best ideas and then tried to apply them to our current situations,” he said. 

The plan does come with a fair share of concerns for Hall schools. 

Bales said the main worry is that students already in good standing could lose interest in classes, as their promotion to the next grade level is virtually guaranteed regardless of performance over the next couple of weeks. He said that some principals around the county have raised those concerns, but the worry that students most affected by COVID-19 would be held back strictly because of how the virus has affected them far outweighed any misgivings educators had regarding continued student interest.

“It’s trying to strike that balance between shutting students that are doing well and performing well down, versus giving kids that are most at risk and families that may be most overwhelmed right now the opportunity to catch their breath and get caught up before grades are finalized,” he said.

The decision also gives educators the opportunity to spend more time with students at risk of falling behind and get everyone caught up going into next year. 

May 7 has been chosen as the last day for teachers to assign new work, but the school year does not end for students until May 22. Bales said the plan for that period is still a bit up in the air, but at the very least it will be a time for students behind on assignments to turn in remediation work.

“Does that mean that for the most part after we get to May 7 and our students are doing well, are we really into the mode of just working with our students who are most at risk and conducting some professional learning and so forth?’” he said. “And the answer is that it could be if that’s what is appropriate for what your circumstances are.” 

Flowery Branch graduation coach Courtney Gonzalez said the new policy will take plenty of stress off of Hall faculty and allow them to turn their attention to ensuring no students are left behind.

“All these students are going through something different, and a lot of the stuff they’re going through, we don’t even know about,” she said. “As a graduation coach, I think it’s going to help me and our staff to be able to put our attention on those students and help them get across that finish line.”

Gonzalez said she is not overly concerned with students simply giving up on education over the final weeks of the school year, adding that the grading change simply “shifts their focus to something different.”

While qualifying for graduation is no longer a stressor for many seniors, college application and preparation for life after high school has become the new focus. 

As for how this year will affect the learning process of non-seniors further down the line in their primary schooling, Gonzalez is less sure. The unprecedented nature of COVID-19 shutdowns has created uncertainty moving forward, but it is a struggle the school system will deal with and adapt to as the situation evolves.

“Obviously nobody signed up for this,” Gonzalez said. “I think our staff and our county is doing a great job to make sure those students hopefully are not feeling the effects of this years down the line.”

The new grading policy provides some clarity for how the remainder of the school year will go, but Bales said there are still some things the school system is trying to figure out. 

Throughout Tuesday’s announcement on grading, the word “reconcile” is used on a number of occasions to describe how Hall County schools will deal with student grading, and Bales said that wording was important and intentional. 

Primarily, according to Bales, the word means “to work out and to align.” But its secondary meaning is to do so in a friendly manner that keeps students and their schools and educators on good terms, a goal that Bales said has been at the forefront of the school system’s intentions as it adjusts to fit everyone's needs in the best way possible. 

“That word reconcile really works nicely with what we’re trying to do,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out what the grades should be, but when in doubt, we’re trying to make nice with our students and make sure that we’ve treated them fairly.” 

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