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How new Friday online schedule gives Hall teachers room to breathe

Trish Weiers was approaching her breaking point. 

It was the week before spring break for Hall County Schools, and Weiers, a third grade teacher at Riverbend Elementary, was starting to get overwhelmed. Between the stressors of moving all of her lessons to a digital format, providing paper copies of assignment to students who do not have access to the internet, participating in collaborative Zoom meetings with her colleagues and meeting after-school hours with students struggling to keep up with online coursework, Weiers was also dealing with four of her own children living at home as well as coursework for a master’s program at Piedmont College.

So when she heard that all Hall County Schools would be adjusting their schedules to removing classes and assignments on Fridays and making the day more about catchup and planning, Weiers said she was flooded with relief. 

“It’s just giving me a chance to catch my breath and really get caught up and get my feet back on the ground,” she said. We were just kind of thrown into this, and we’re just working crazy hours. So when I got the news, it was definitely a relief. It came at the right time.”

On April 3, the Hall County School District rolled out its amended, “WeCareFriday” school week schedule that makes no changes to the structured learning on Monday through Thursday but switches Fridays to be more flexible for both students and educators.

It is not a move to a four-day week, according to Hall County Schools assistant superintendent Kevin Bales. It’s just an accommodated plan aimed at relieving new burdens imposed by online schooling. 

“The concept for WeCareFridays really was birthed as a response to what we were hearing from not only our parents, but also our educators in the district,” Bales said. "We had educators that were providing instruction realize all the sudden they needed to have some flexibility because they would need to communicate with kids much after the typical brick-and-mortar school day. They were starting to get shorted their own personal family time.”

Bales said students and teachers are not expected to treat Fridays as a day off. Rather, it is a time for making up work, catching up on mental health or participating in community service without the burden of any new assignment or lessons.

“It’s just an opportunity and trying to be responsive both to parents in our communities and to educators in the district,” he said. 

Providing relief for overworked teachers was one of the primary drives of the WeCareFridays decision. 

Lia Kinigakis, a special education teacher at Davis Middle School, said her days were quickly stretched beyond the typical 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. schedule as soon as school from home began. She would regularly wake up as early as 6 a.m., teach class until 4 p.m. and then deal with lesson planning for future days well into the night.

“I wasn’t going to bed until midnight trying to get things done and getting it ready for the next day or for a few days, trying to plan a few days ahead of time,” Kinigakis said. “Being able to have that Friday is really going to be very helpful in the planning aspect of it of getting things ready for the week.”

Fridays will also provide teachers with an opportunity to participate in professional learning sessions, catch up with students getting behind on their assignments, or simply take some time to relax. 

Weiers said she plans on spending her Fridays providing feedback on assignments from earlier in the week and writing letters to her students letting them know she cares about them.

“If everything goes as planned, maybe I'll even be done with the day by 4 o’clock so that I can spend some time with my family, get outside and not have so much pressure as we end up the week,” she said.

The new schedule is also designed to provide relief to Hall County students and their parents. 

Diana Blankenship Osorio, a parent of five students attending Hall County schools, said the switch to online learning was tough on the whole family. Blankenship Osorio said that WeCareFridays will allow her to spend extra time with her children who are struggling to keep up with school assignments without further work continuing to pile up.

“I was actually quite relieved to hear about it,” she said. “The way they’re presenting it is obviously as a day first and foremost to catch up on any work. So for example (this Friday), all the kids were caught up except for one, so I got some one-on-one time with the one that needs the most help. That was a good thing for us.”

Osorio Blankenship also said Fridays will now serve as a chance for students to focus on their mental health. 

The added stress that comes with social distancing and school from home has had profound impacts on her children. Osorio Blankenship said her kids planned to spend some time playing outside on the first WeCareFriday and remembering what it means to be a kid.

“I think we forget that kids are feeling this too,” she said. “They’re missing their friends. They’re missing their sports, their activities, their routines, all of that. To give them a day removed from that I think definitely was a good choice on the part of the county.” 

The goal of the schedule adjustment is to take into account the needs of everyone involved in the Hall County School District. 

Balance was a key concept in making the decision to move forward with WeCareFridays, according to Bales. In switching things up, the school district was simply trying to find the best balance between educational progression and household harmony. 

“You’re really wanting folks to be able to do schoolwork without it creating too much additional stress in households that don’t need additional stress,” Bales said. “So it’s really a balancing act. I’m not saying we’re getting it perfect, but I’m telling you we’re working on it every day.” 

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