More than once this school year, Patricia Blash has had to watch helplessly as her two granddaughters broke down into tears.
The stresses of virtual learning for her second-grader and fifth-grader sometimes prove to be too much, and they’re overwhelmed to the point of crying.
“You talk about the stress on the child,” said Blash, who is retired from a long teaching career and who is now helping her two grandchildren as they adjust to at-home digital education. “Both of them, they’re in tears because ‘I’m not where I’m supposed to be and I need to get there and I’ve got this to do.’”
Blash was one of many to share her experience with virtual learning this school year during a forum hosted Sunday by Regina Johnson, Democrat and a Glynn County Board of Education candidate for the at-large post 2 seat. The invitation-only event took place at A Moveable Feast in Brunswick and brought together a variety of stakeholders, including school administrators, parents, grandparents, a therapist and a concerned citizen.
Johnson has identified closing the digital divide as one her campaign priorities, and she said she hoped the forum would be informational and help bring needed resources to local students.
“Today, we come together and find out what are our resources?” Johnson said.
Glynn County Schools this year offered two options to families. Students could either return to in-person instruction or commit to virtual learning for nine weeks or a semester, depending on their age.
All students had to move to virtual learning in March for the remainder of the school year, when the pandemic shut down schools around the nation. Slowly, as schools have reopened in different formats, students are adjusting to new ways of learning.
But it hasn’t been easy, as many in Glynn County can attest.
Laura Khurana, whose daughter returned to in-person instruction this year, said she isn’t sure how she would have managed her daughter’s virtual learning last school year without the support of her parents, who watched her two young children while she worked.
“I don’t know how I would have done it without, as a single mom,” she said.
Dora Francis signed her children up for a virtual homeschool option. She and her mother are breast cancer survivors, and Francis said she couldn’t risk sending her children back to in-person learning.
But the virtual homeschool program, she said, has been almost too much to handle. While she’s able to monitor from work each day, using her cellphone, how much school work her daughter has completed and when her upcoming tests or deadlines are, the demands of the virtual learning program are challenging to keep up with, Francis said.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s been horrific,” she said. “We’ve struggled with it.”
School system administrators who participated in the forum said they hoped to learn more about the concerns parents have as everyone adjusts to this new type of school year.
“I’m here to tell you, one, I don’t have all the answers,” said Sung Hui Lewis, assistant superintendent of Glynn County Schools. “And, two, I’m not going to sit here and say we can fix it today, but it’s a start to hear what needs to be done or what needs are out there.”
Christy Jones, instructional technology coordinator for Glynn County Schools, said the school system put in extensive work over the summer to streamline the virtual learning experience so that all schools and teachers are using the same platform, Google Classroom, and so there’s consistent protocols.
“That’s been a major push,” Jones said. “We know it’s not perfect yet because this is an unprecedented time, and I do spend many hours of each day troubleshooting with parents. The first line of defense for you all, if you have kids in school or not in school doing virtual, is your media specialist.”
Glynn County Schools recently announced an opportunity for elementary or middle school students to switch between the virtual and face-to-face learning environment. The new learning period will begin Sept. 28.
That option was provided because many parents came to the school system with concerns that their students’ current situation wasn’t working out, Lewis said.
“We’re all working together,” she said. “But if you’re in a situation where you’re not being successful, we’re open to conversations. We want to hear how to make it better for you.”
Audrey Gibbons, a grandmother of three and a Democrat seeking the District 5 seat on the Glynn County Board of Education, shared some of the work being done in the community to help virtual learners who do not have the technology, internet connectivity or at-home support they may need to be successful in a digital learning environment.
A new initiative aims to bring schools, churches and families together to meet these needs by opening church spaces and providing technology and internet access to students. The organization is coordinating now to help its first group of students.
Meredith Magnus, who attended the forum as a concerned citizen, asked why ESPLOST funding could not be used to purchase more technology for students.
“The school district is sitting on many millions of dollars right now that can be used for this purpose … and you’re not doing it, while students are running behind,” she said. “They are being left behind. This is wrong.”
Janel Holland, a licensed clinical social worker in Glynn County, attended the forum and offered advice on how to navigate the stressful situations that come with virtual learning.
She recommended that families use these challenges as a way to help their children become problem solvers. When the internet goes down, she said, take a child outside to play. Finding healthy ways to respond to adversity will benefit students in the long run, Holland said.
She also suggested denoting which spaces in the home are for school activities and which are for other activities, like sleep and leisure.
“Try to have a designated space that’s a homework space, whether it’s the kitchen table or a little area you make in the sun room,” Holland said. “Try to have different areas. That way their brain realizes, ‘OK, when I’m in this area, it’s homework time,’ or ‘When I’m in my room, I can play with my toys.’”
Many are relying on support systems by asking family members to help their children during this challenging time, Holland said. Everyone’s also having to build resiliency, she said, as these are new problems that few have dealt with before.
“No one has the answers,” Holland said. “There’s not a written script for us to follow, step by step, so we’re making it up as we go along. So we are assuring our kids that they have the resources and skills to be able to do it.”
There’s a lot to learn, Blash said, and many challenges to face. Her second-grader is expected to succeed in virtual learning yet is still trying to learn basics like typing.
And both of her grandchildren have had issues with technical malfunctions that kick them either out of their virtual classroom or off their internet connection completely.
Blash praised the teachers who have patiently tried to help students or their guardians troubleshoot these issues in real time via text message or online messaging while trying to continue instruction for the other students.
“Having been on the other side of that as a former teacher, I am amazed at the way the teachers have found these creative ways,” she said.
Frequently, by the time the error is fixed and her student is logged back into the classroom, Blash said a large amount of instruction time has been lost.
“She can get in, but now it’s near the end of the class day,” she said. “She’s missed all that instruction.”