Parents across the Mobile County Public School System’s (MCPSS) footprint are finding ways to make online classes work for their school-aged children, but even some who believe precautions should be taken to slow the spread of COVID-19 seem ready for schools to reopen.
So far, MCPSS has spent more than $7 million on tens of thousands of digital devices and Wi-Fi hotspots to help facilitate at least nine weeks of “online-only” education. The system decided in July to stick with online classes for the first half of the fall semester due to the number of COVID-19 cases in the area — a decision Superintendent Chresal Threadgill said at the time would not make everyone happy.
After a week of classes, opinions among parents still seem divided. Last week, more than 4,000 people signed an online petition encouraging MCPSS to bring students back for in-person classes.
In response, a spokesperson for the system said administrators were still “monitoring the COVID-19 numbers” and “working on a plan to transition our students back to the classroom” when it is safe to do so for students and staff members. But for the time being, the plan is to continue with online classes.
Hannah White, who now has a kindergartner and a high school freshman learning from home, said her family is making the situation work but is still “very disappointed” parents weren’t given options.
“We were planning on our daughters returning in-person, even if things were modified. If we had a choice, they would be back in school,” White said. “[My oldest daughter] is definitely not happy about it. She’s just at that age where she wants to see her friends and she finds the online classes boring.”
White described herself as “one of the lucky [parents]” who doesn’t work outside of the home, which has allowed her to supervise her children’s online learning. She’s picking up and preparing lunches provided by the school system and trying to help where she can with her daughters’ workloads and schedules.
There have been ups and downs. White commended teachers for trying to recreate the classroom experience for her kindergartner, but she also complained of some technical issues with Schoology — the online platforms students use to access assignments, live lessons and connect with their teachers.
According to White, “Schoology crashes a lot” and sometimes won’t fully load icons and images on her younger daughter’s device. Her older daughter has also been “booted” out of online sessions more than once.
While some parents are working with their students at home, others haven’t been able to because of their jobs. Kendall and Marshall Hayden both work full time, so figuring out what to do with their 7-year-old daughter was a challenge when Mary B. Austin Elementary School closed its doors in the spring.
Heading into the fall, they put their daughter in a “learning pod” with other girls from her school. It runs from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. each day and then their daughter finishes the day at work with her father.
“I don’t know what we would be doing if we didn’t have this option available, but I imagine it would require me taking a leave of absence from work or at the very least taking time off throughout the week,” Marshall said. “I have a job that requires a good deal of attention, and I would have to set everything aside and set up school lessons, which is really what’s required because kids need your full attention and they need to be interacted with and led through these web-based lessons.”
The Haydens aren’t outliers, either. Learning pods have popped up all over the country as schools moved classes online and parents have looked to ways to supplement both the child care and the one-on-one interaction public schools provide. Parents typically pay for children to join pods, which are often led by someone with a teaching background who supervises children and assists them with schoolwork.
Dana Terry, who has a degree in early childhood education, is currently teaching a small group of kindergartners three days a week. Terry said she was actually approached about starting the group by moms looking for options for their children — two of whom are actually teachers themselves.
On the days they meet, the girls come to Terry’s house in their school uniforms and bring their lunches, backpacks, supplies and devices. The online schedule is set by the school, but Terry makes sure the students are all signed in and ready for their classes. In between those sessions, Terry is also able to work in physical education, art and science lessons of her own.
Terry commended the teachers for doing as much to replicate the normal classroom interaction as possible. Still, she said the additional social interaction with the others in the learning group has benefits that are hard to replicate online. She said the girls love attending school in a group together.
“Remember, this is their first time attending ‘real’ school. So, all of this is new to them to begin with, along with having the virtual experience,” she said. “It’s very important for children to have social interaction at this age. This is giving them a unique opportunity to be with friends and attend school virtually.”
Terry declined to discuss what she’s being paid by her students’ parents, but Marshall Hayden said his family is paying roughly $165 a week for their daughter to participate in a similar learning pod with nine other students from Mary B. Austin Elementary. It’s not an option all parents can afford, and some have argued this home-schooling format could deepen inequities in access to education that already exists in public schools.
Marshall told Lagniappe he’s heard some of those “negative reports” about learning pods, but for their family the decision was simple: It’s what was best for their daughter. And while he understands why MCPSS decided to stick to online courses back in July, given a choice today, he’d rather his daughter return to in-person classes with all of her classmates at Mary B. Austin.
“Basically, these are secondary outlets to simply replicate the environment of a school setting, and I think it makes more sense to keep them in an environment that’s already designed for that,” he said. “The data shows kids at elementary age are not at high risk for [COVID-19], and with that in mind, I would say the benefits associated with returning to school certainly outweigh the risks.”
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