Local education leaders spoke during a panel discussion Monday about the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The panel, “The State of Education in Gainesville/Hall County,” was hosted by the Rotary Club of Gainesville.
The panelists included Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield; Gainesville Superintendent Jeremy Williams; University of North Georgia President Bonita Jacobs; Brenau University President Anne Skleder; Lanier Tech President Tim McDonald; Lakeview Academy Head of School Kirsty Montgomery; and Riverside Military Academy President Stanley Preczewski. Here are a few takeaways from their discussion.
More mental health issues during the pandemic
Every panelist mentioned the impact the pandemic has had on the emotional well-being of students and staff.
Schofield spoke in particular about “dealing with the chaos” that contributed to the seemingly districtwide decline in mental health in Hall. He said the school system has seen perhaps a 300% increase in mental health issues among elementary students.
“Without a doubt the social-emotional challenges have been the greatest challenge, trying to create a sense of normalcy in the midst of chaos, especially for our youngest learners,” he said.
Williams used one word to summarize the effect of the pandemic on Gainesville students and staff: anxiety.
“Our goal was to try and keep (the anxiety) to a minimum as much as possible,” he said. “For us it was just trying to focus on giving the safest and most comfortable environment for our kids and our adults to be successful so that our parents feel comfortable sending their child to school.”
Skleder likewise spoke about “making sure that we are providing a safe environment,” adding that the college at times struggled to grapple with the “increased need for mental health check-ins.” She said 50% to 55% of the university’s students are eligible for Pell grants and many have parents who are first responders.
“I think all of our faculty started every class with, ‘How are you doing? What's going on in your life and your health?’ . . . before we even begin to talk about anything that has to do with the subject matter,” she said.
The staff at Lakeview Academy, said Montgomery, are “exhausted already, and it's a little bit early to be this exhausted.”
Learning loss and possible solutions
Williams noted that 30% of the district’s students are English Language Learners, meaning “they do not speak English in the home,” which made it exceptionally difficult for nearly one-third of students to adapt to remote learning. In an effort to combat this problem, the district has expanded its summer learning program to include all schools, adding that about one-fifth of all students participated in the four-week learning loss program this past summer.
Schofield said “children of poverty,” who account for roughly two-thirds of all city students, have been especially hard hit by the pandemic. Additionally, some 20% of students are English learners. He added that some 60 students who dropped out likely would have graduated high school if not for the pandemic.
Skleder hesitated to identify a silver lining, saying learning during a pandemic is “a tragic way to learn,” but added that Brenau has been able to harness “a willingness to be more flexible than is even imaginable.”
Jacobs spoke of better communication at UNG. Town halls are now held virtually, she said, which means that town halls are available to community members outside their school, which leads to greater cohesion across the various campuses.
“It’s a better way to communicate because everybody is getting the same information,” she said. So our silver lining is that we will continue to do those via technology, because our feedback was that they were so much more effective.”
Williams pinpointed the word “efficiency” and said that virtual meetings have saved a lot of time and allowed a greater number of community stakeholders to participate.
McDonald said that virtual learning has allowed Lanier Tech students to watch lectures as many times as they wish, whereas in a standard classroom, they only have one opportunity to take notes and retain information. And although the college is “about 75% back to normal operations,” he said, “students became more resilient (and) found out they could be successful (in a virtual learning environment).”
“I have a whole new set of people that I consider my heroes,” Schofield said. He said that cafeteria staff and bus drivers provided roughly 1 million meals to students. A second silver lining, he said: “I think people have a whole new appreciation for what goes on with our young people, and the incredible education system we have in this country.”
Montgomery said Lakeview’s mission statement is that “we’re a family,” and that family “was strengthened over the last 18 months.”