Northside school leaders say the pandemic has highlighted the need for education to be focused on the needs of students.

Metro-Atlanta students — as well as students across the nation — watched as the world came to a standstill as COVID-19 swept across their state and their world. According to the World Health Organization, the United States alone has seen more than 39 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 641,728 deaths from Jan. 3, 2020 to Sept. 6, 2021.

According to the Georgia Department of Public Health, more than 1.1 million Georgians have tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 20,000 have died as a result of COVID-19. Fulton County has seen a total of 99,760 cases and 1,424 deaths resulting from COVID-19 since last February.

School systems moved to virtual learning, extracurricular activities were cancelled and graduations were either made virtual or just cancelled. As a result, the lack of access to healthy and sustainable food, internet, technology and safety were highlighted.

Since the pandemic hit Georgia, the Atlanta Community Food Bank saw a 300% increase in inquiries from people seeking food assistance. Due to increased demand related to the economic effects of the pandemic, the Food Bank said it has been distributing between 30% and 40% more food each week than the same period one year ago.

The pandemic also seemed to deepen the digital divide between students and schools. Around 1.6 million Georgians do not have access to high-speed internet, and in Georgia school systems with fewer than 1,000 students, 56% of households do not have high speed internet available, according to the Georgia Recorder.

Additionally, students saw an eruption of racial unrest following the 2020 killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

“The inequities inherent in a system that has denied educational opportunity to generations of Americans have been exposed and exacerbated in the face of the twin pandemics – COVID and the racial reckoning of the past year,” Atlanta Speech School Executive Director Comer Yates said.

Lovett Head of School Meredyth Cole released a letter to her students, parents and staff last May following the deaths of Taylor, Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.

“These unjust acts have been traumatic and painful, for all of us, but especially for our African American students, faculty, staff, parents, and alumni,” Cole wrote. “These tragedies have occurred when so many are already struggling through unprecedented times of pandemic and its continuing fallout. Uncertainty, isolation, and illness seem to abound, and grief feels like a norm — especially this weekend.”

“But where there are young people, in my experience, there’s hope,” she said.

The pandemic clearly marks a start to a new chapter in education as schools hone their focus on their students. When former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced the U.S. Department of Education would not exempt students from mandatory standardized testing, State Superintendent Richard Woods released a letter saying yes, Georgia schools were federally required to take the tests, but to not worry about the exams.

“I repeat: do not worry about the tests,” Woods wrote. “Worry about meeting the students and teachers where they are. Worry about a safe and supportive restart. Worry about the well-being of your students and teachers. Worry about doing what’s right.”

“Who we are will be measured not by a test score, but by how we meet this moment,” Woods said.

As a result, the Georgia Department of Education made End of Course tests optional for students and public colleges and universities waived standardized test scores from admission requirements until Spring 2022.

“We cannot return to where we were before the pandemic – with 2/3 of children reading below grade level, and finishing their school career without access to a life of self-determination,” Yates said.

“The pervasive inequities demand revolution,” Yates said. “This has two universal requirements: engaging in trauma-informed practices to meet every child where they are and teaching to the science – so that no child’s life is defined or confined by illiteracy.”

Despite the ample challenges brought on by COVID-19, schools are determined to remain positive and look to the future with hope. Schools have largely returned to in-person instruction, Friday night lights have returned, auditorium seats are filled and an overall feeling of enthusiasm has returned to classrooms.

“Living and teaching through a pandemic has further strengthened educators’ commitment to our children,” Cole said. “We will forever be at the ready to pivot and rise to the occasion with our students’ best interest at heart.”

For the most up to date information on school masks mandates, closures and virtual learning, visit www.mdjonline.com/neighbor_newspapers.

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