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Clarke County School District prepares for online classes, which start Sept. 8, 2020.

The Clarke County School District is set to begin classes virtually on Sept. 8 in an effort to protect students, families and employees by limiting the spread of the coronavirus, according to a press release by CCSD. 

CCSD Chief Academic Officer Brannon Gaskins laid out the county’s plans for how the first week of classes will look for students. 

“This first week will be mostly synchronous as teachers get to know students and walk students through those daily routines and procedures, and making sure they have the technology that they need, and they understand an overview of the course,” Gaskins said. 

Lower-grade levels will have a greater emphasis on synchronous learning, Gaskins said. A balanced approach of synchronous and asynchronous learning will be established for students of middle and high school grade levels. Breaks during the school day have also been implemented into all levels but will be left into the hands of individual schools and teachers on how they choose to space them. 

Members of the CCSD Board of Education and the Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission met for a joint meeting through Zoom on Aug. 24 to discuss pressing issues as the county prepares for the first day of the 2020-2021 school year. 

The key concern that the school board had is ensuring students have adequate internet access to perform the tasks necessary to successfully engage in their learning and classwork. 

According to Gaskins, CCSD has provided students with devices, including iPads and Chromebooks, to ease the technological burden while students navigate virtual learning. They have also collaborated with local businesses, community centers and public parks offering free Wi-Fi to enhance internet connection capabilities for children to access their online work.

CCSD serves approximately 14,000 students. The Athens Housing Authority is working to make sure that its 962 students living in AHA housing are able to reliably access the internet in time for the first day of school, according to Rick Parker, chief executive officer of the AHA. 

“We are simply trying to make use of all the community resources that are available and try to figure out on our own, are there things that we can do to help get internet into our neighborhoods,” Parker said.

Even with Parker’s contributions, some students will still have issues accessing the internet on Sept. 8. Among them are families that live in rural areas, away from local centers, who may be unable to benefit from their consistent use. 

District 5 Commissioner Tim Denson has been vocal on the issue. Denson continuously stressed the importance that families living in rural or underserviced areas are not left out of receiving support for accessing the internet in their homes. 

“I am continuing to push my colleagues on the commission and school board to work towards that [getting families access] and also still encouraging staff to find a way,” Denson said.  ”We can ensure that every single Clarke County School District family has reliable internet access available to them.”

When asked about the progress being made to reach these families in need, Denson said that discussions were ongoing in the days following the joint meeting, but he has not heard of any  substantial actions. 

Denson expressed concern that students who are unable to access the internet will be placed at a disadvantage. The U.S. Department of Education issued a waiver to suspend federal testing requirements upon states’ request for the 2019-2020 school year. The waiver will most likely not roll over in Georgia for the 2020-2021 school year. Denson is afraid that not having the necessary resources will be harmful when it comes time for students to take standardized tests. 

“It’s already a struggle with them having to do this from home rather than in a classroom but if we are also not giving them the ability that they can have 24/7 access online to the learning materials, how can we expect these children to pass those rigorous tests we put in front of them,” Denson said.

Gaskins is adamant about wanting students to return to in-person learning. He said the school district will follow the phase-in plan adopted by CCSD Director of School Nursing Amy Roark as the model for transitioning students back into schools. 

“We are definitely playing it by ear,” Gaskins said. “We would love to come back before the end of the semester for a variety of reasons but really we can only have 100% confidence that our students are getting the instruction that they need when we are all back face to face.”

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