Cobb, Marietta Schools superintendents reflect on a full school year in a pandemic

·9 min read

May 28—As their seniors graduate this month and early next and after a full school year, plus a few months, of educating during a global pandemic, the MDJ caught up with Marietta Schools Superintendent Grant Rivera and Cobb Schools Superintendent Chris Ragsdale to discuss what they learned, how they were challenged and what in the world of education they think may have changed for good.

Rivera: 'We stood in the gap during a pandemic'

Rivera said in some respects it has been "the most inspiring year I've ever had in education," and in others a challenge both personally and operationally.

First, glass half full, he said: "I've seen people step up in ways that go far beyond a job description or a job title — teachers serving food; counselors supporting children; bus drivers making home visits, and the list is endless — and I think in so many ways, this last year, I stood on the shoulders of giants and felt so incredibly inspired and reminded of how much education is in fact, the fabric of our community."

But, of course, the superintendent said, the pandemic presented real challenges for ensuring every student received the education they needed and deserved. Educating students online, encouraging some to stay connected while outside the school buildings and ensuring those who didn't have reliable internet connection could access their course materials, Rivera said, means that as the year ends, "I'm exhausted."

"I hadn't taken a single day off from March of 2019 until this past spring break of April 2020. And I don't think I realized the toll that it took on my family — the toll it took on me — and I just put my phone down and I honestly didn't want to pick it up for a week while we were on spring break," he told the MDJ, adding that his own exhaustion was shared by teachers and staff. "If our kids needed food, we got food. If they needed Chromebooks, they got Chromebooks, they get hotspots. If they needed home delivery of a band instrument, if they needed small group tutoring but we had to be outside for some — whatever it took. We stood in the gap during a pandemic, so the children didn't fall into that gap."

In an email to Marietta families and staff on Thursday, Rivera said, in the past school year, the district distributed more than 7,000 Chromebooks and 1,750 Wi-Fi hotspots to students and delivered more than 1 million meals to students in schools and to homes and other central points in the community.

More than 100 school buses safely traveled over 413,000 miles "without a single confirmed case of COVID transmission" on a Marietta bus; air filters and other purifying measures were installed in school, classroom, bus and office HVAC units; and "immeasurable hours were spent cleaning, wiping, and disinfecting every surface of every building," Rivera wrote.

The summer, Rivera said, will be used to reflect, recover and plan for the future, because "we can't do this again."

The district can't do it again, he said, because simultaneous virtual and in-person education isn't healthy for teachers, is too inconsistent for students and families and divides students into two groups: those in the building and those who are not.

"And to me, what that meant was we had some schools where the majority of the people weren't even walking the hallways and that's not the energy and the love and the schools that we've all come to cherish," he said. "It was a ghost town."

Part of the summer's reflecting and planning, Rivera said, will include deciding what the future of virtual school options may look like. Marietta City Schools has announced that it will give families a virtual option for the 2021-22 school year, but offerings after that are in question for two reasons:

First, demand for online school continues to drop among Marietta families — from May 11 to May 18 at Marietta High School alone, 115 families decided they would return their students to in-person instruction in the fall, rather than continue with virtual school as they had originally intended, Rivera said.

And second: "we're seeing an alarming pattern that far too many students who choose virtual are being unsuccessful."

"I thought one of the major takeaways from this was going to be that more and more families would want a K-12 virtual option," he said. "But, while we are willing to meet our families where they are, I think many more people want the stability of what in-person learning offers."

Just as difficult as figuring out what online school would look like, he said, was making families feel as if they had stability, as health experts' guidance continued to shift throughout the pandemic.

The greatest challenge personally, he said, was "seeing how much our staff and our students and our families have hurt over the last year."

"Families and staff, I think in their moments of greatest exhaustion, they've been asked to run faster," he said. "And my heart has hurt for every person who has been exhausted and afraid and isolated, and it's not what schools are. ... And next year, when children walk back into buildings — I hope with no masks, and I hope with less safety protocols than what we have now — that they will be inspired and reminded of why schools are a pillar of this community and (that) we won't feel the same degree of isolation and fear."

Rivera also said the district learned how virtual options for some school matters could make more mundane tasks easier on schools and families.

"Why are you dragging families in for in-person meetings when we could do a virtual meeting and people can join me at eight o'clock in their pajamas? That's a lesson learned," he said. "But I don't know that we could pretend that the convenience of virtual meetings for families is equal to the quality of virtual learning for children."

And he said the pandemic has forced something that he hopes can continue, albeit to a lesser degree: parent participation in their child's education.

"I do think that this forces us to be reflective on what family engagement looks like post-pandemic," he said. "How do we keep that element so families feel as connected next year when their child's in a classroom, as they did this past year when they were sitting in the living room?"

Ragsdale: 'This was a year of firsts'

In many regards, Cobb's superintendent echoed his Marietta counterpart. Ragsdale touted the performance of teachers, nutrition and transportation workers and other staff, who he said worked nonstop to ensure students were engaged, fed and got to where they needed to go no matter the scenario. And, just like in Marietta, Ragsdale said, while the district saw some students thrive in a virtual setting, many others struggled.

Like in Marietta, the district passed out laptops to students who needed access to one and distributed thousands of meals and snacks at designated points for those families who relied on them.

And like Rivera, Ragsdale cited the district's asking so much of its staff — teachers often had to teach in-person and virtual class simultaneously — as one of the most difficult operational challenges, along with making sure every student who needed a meal received one.

He applauded staff's ability to accomplish those tasks, even for students and teachers who had to be quarantined in various locations. Students were still seeing the same teachers all school year, no matter the scenario, he said.

"Being able to stay with that same teacher, not missing any kind of time, as far as in the teaching and learning process, as well as teachers being able to — when they had to quarantine — still being able to teach their class remotely, that's probably the most difficult piece of our operation," Ragsdale said.

That's why next year's virtual offering will see teachers leading either in-person or virtual courses, not both, he said.

Also challenging was the fact that this time last year — a time when the district would normally be presenting its final budget for the following fiscal year — district officials didn't know what state and federal funds would be available to them because state lawmakers were still putting together their own budget, delayed by the pandemic. In response, both the Cobb and Marietta school boards had to approve temporary spending resolutions that OK'd set expenditures on a one-month basis.

"That's the first time in my 29 years of education that I can remember not having a state-provided budget by July 1 and having to do expenditure resolutions," Ragsdale said. "So unfortunately this was a year of firsts and not necessarily positive firsts, but firsts that we had to deal with nonetheless."

Ragsdale the most prominent personal challenge for him was the fear surrounding the COVID-19 virus.

"We had a couple of months in the last academic year of the pandemic, we really didn't know what we knew, what we didn't know or what was to come," he said. "But over the summer when it really set in as to the level of seriousness that this virus was and was bringing about and the loss of life, it just — it struck home I think for everybody."

Ragsdale said even if people weren't fearful for themselves, they often were for their older family members or friends and relatives with pre-existing medical conditions that could put them at risk for life-threatening complications from the virus.

Looking forward, Ragsdale said the pandemic has challenged people to consider how large of a role technology will play in the future of education. For example, he said, when conversations about having a 1-to-1 ratio of school-provided personal computers to students first came up years ago, the district couldn't afford the $1,500-per-device price tag that came with it.

Knowing what educators know now and with some devices costing as little as $500 each, "there's a different opportunity" and one that deserves some exploring.

In terms of the catching up that some students may have to do after a year of online learning that educators across the state have decried as not nearly as effective as in-person class, Ragsdale said it's hard to know how long it may take to return to the confidence of knowing where each student stood in their academic progress before the pandemic. But, he said, the district's staff and student portal has given it a leg up and made assessing students far easier.

The main goal from here, Ragsdale said, will be to "focus forward," on its goal of student success. And, he said, families can take comfort in the fact that Cobb Schools is making sure "as soon as these students come back — and regardless of whether or not it's face-to-face or virtual — that focus is still there."

Follow Thomas Hartwell on Twitter at twitter.com/MDJThomas.

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