West End’s school daze
How students, parents and staff are grappling with a new learning reality
By Dustin Chambers
More than 50 West End community members helped choose this story’s topic through listening conversations and meetings this past summer. Learn more about how we produced this issue.
AS COVID-19 FORCED SCHOOLS across the country to avoid reopening in person, West End children started the school year online—and families still are coping with the new paradigm of remote learning. In a neighborhood where one in three households lives below the poverty level, and where one in five may not have access to a computer, parents and children are finding that it’s no easy transition.
Atlanta Public Schools’ students won’t return to the classroom until sometime next year. Until then, APS has promised to keep remote access to technology and food for families who need it.
Is it enough? I set out to meet West End families living through this new era of schooling to get some perspective and a potential answer to that question. However, I had questions of my own: Does the food delivery program fall in line with the meals kids were already getting at home? Are families equipped with reliable internet, fast enough to support multiple students live-streaming classes, with bandwidth for parents to get work done? Does every student have spaces at home where they can be free of distraction? How does the lack of face-to-face interactions that typically come with being at school weigh on the social psyche of students and parents? What I found was four families going through different struggles, but finding ways to make it work.
Laquanta Clay recently started her new job as an APS parent liaison. In her role, she serves as a liaison between parents and the school. Most of her days involve fielding questions from parents about logins, passwords, web portals, broken laptops, and slow hotspots. Laquanta likes working from home so she can keep an eye on her two boys, Jurel, 7, and Amarion, 17, who are both attending online classes at their respective schools.
Amarion attends class in his room on his first day of his senior year of high school.
Jurel stretches and does jumping jacks with his homeroom classmates over Zoom.
Before school began, APS pushed to ensure each student had the laptop or iPad they needed to attend class remotely. In total, APS distributed more than $2 million worth of technology, paid in part by government relief grants.
Laquanta (right) helps to coordinate tech pickup week at M. Agnes Jones Elementary School in Ashview Heights. She knows that some of her neighbors have access to computers and reliable internet. But not everyone does. “The very first day of school, Zoom crashed. That caused a massive panic, especially in the parents,” Laquanta says. “I literally did not use the restroom until I got home.”
Days after picking up an iPad from M. Agnes Jones, Sharon McCollough logs her daughter Patrice, 6, into Zoom on the morning of the first day of school. She says the forthcoming school year will likely be toughest on Patrice.
Sharon has three other children: two-year-old Shayla, the youngest; a 15-year-old son in high school; and her eldest daughter at a technical college. It takes a lot of work for Sharon to get the kids to stay focused. “I have to check on each and every one of them to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do,” she says.
Sharon holds Shayla as she watches over Patrice, who sips a blueberry frosty and eats a glazed doughnut for her breakfast. At the onset of the pandemic, Sharon was happy to receive extra meals from the school, but she no longer finds it necessary because she is getting double food stamps from pandemic relief. Even if she wanted to, Sharon doesn’t have enough room in the fridge for the free school lunches.
Patrice works at her desk in the living room, while her mother tapes up a colorful border to display learning materials for her daughter.
Patrice and Shayla play in the rain at the end of a school day.
Back at Laquanta’s house, her nephew C.J. attends class in the dining room of the Clay family home, which was built in 1917 by her great-grandfather.
Down the hall, Jurel sits in class in the TV room on the first day of school while his grandmother, LeRonia Clay, tidies up the couch. “I think it’s cool,” Jurel says of his current setup. “We don’t have to get dressed and all that type of stuff, and we get to go on and just do our work.”
Jurel likes to play video games, make videos of himself eating and reviewing food with his camcorder, and find bugs in the yard.
After school, Jurel goes outside to catch bugs in a jar.
He loves the hobby, but LeRonia would prefer to keep his insects out of the house.
In the evening and into the wee hours of the night, Laquanta works on adding links to the resource page she set up for parents. A Bitmoji she made of herself sits on a chair in the corner of the screen.
“I’ve literally fallen asleep with the laptop on,” she says. “Because we don’t see the parents face to face, it’s like you’re always coming up with different ways of getting information out.”
Getting the word out is easier said than done. Laquanta has to deal with grandparents who don’t know what Facebook or Instagram is. Plus, there are different apps and learning portals to navigate.
M. Agnes Jones is a Title I school, which means funding is allocated based on enrollment and attendance numbers. If the kids don’t log on, teachers can lose their jobs because employment needs are based on how many kids are in need.
“It’s a trickle-down effect because, when they fire teachers, then the teachers that stay have bigger classes,” Laquanta says “It can’t work if the parents don’t work with you.”
Oftentimes, the parents are facing issues that go beyond their kids’ attendance records.
“Right now we’ve got a lot of people that are facing evictions, so we offer resources to programs for families, classes for parents that want to go back to college or change their career paths,” she says.
A few weeks into the school year, Lillionette Sadler assembles bags of food, which will be distributed to students who sign up for them, at Carver High School in South Atlanta. Each bag comes with enough breakfast and lunch food to last five school days.
She says they’re preparing more than 300 meals this week, and Lillionette isn’t sure why more families aren’t taking advantage of the program.
“I know some of them are on food stamps, and Donald Trump is giving them extra food stamps,” she says. “If I had to work at home with my child, I’d rather still get lunch from the school—when they are hollering that they’re hungry—breakfast is already prepared, so you don’t have to go into the kitchen and cook. All you have to do is prepare dinner.”
M. Agnes Jones Elementary School fifth-grader Carolinda and her mother, Melissa Alexander, put a new desk together the weekend before school starts.
Carolinda makes a personal pizza for lunch on the first day of school.
Melissa, a photographer, says at the onset of the pandemic, both parents and school staff were trying to figure out what to do. “Her teacher, who’d just had a baby, was like, We’re not meeting until 10 a.m., guys, which was a much more manageable time,” she says. “We can have our morning to ourselves, then school starts.”
After lunch, Carolinda went out to the porch to change the water in her hydroponic plant.
Not being at school, her main concern is who is taking care of the animals. “I’m only worried about my school because we have pet chickens there,” she says.
Around the corner, the Melton family is juggling a lot. Ahmi, 12, goes to Luther J. Price Middle School, where his mom, Jervonia, says that he and his classmates are often helping older teachers navigate their way through technical difficulties of virtual lesson plans.
Across the hall, Ahmi’s younger sister, Zari, attends class in her bedroom adorned with multicolored butterfly stickers.
Zari is a student at Drew Charter School and misses her friends. Her favorite class is social studies. “I like learning about different people and the world,” she says.
While Zari works, Jervonia cleans her room and changes the bedsheets.
“They never got bored before, but now, they get bored,” Jervonia says. “We have to be like, Well, go figure something out to do besides being on the computer. So, they’ve done a lot of arts and crafts.” Their dad, Jesse, has been trying to get them into golf.
Jesse was furloughed by Park Atlanta, where he worked as a meter technician. He watches Ahmi work at his computer while Zari starts to make lunch.
“The worst thing about it is the whole uncertainty,” Jesse says. “You have to worry about how you’re going to pay for the mortgage, how long is it going to last, when is Congress going to get off their asses and do something.”
Whereas Jesse misses the sense of security, his kids are missing out on those coming-of-age moments like first crushes. “Ahmi’s at that age where girls are starting to like them, so there’s this one girl that likes him, and he can’t see her,” he says.
In the 45 minutes Zari has for lunch, she makes a turkey sandwich with Miracle Whip and eats it on her bed while chatting with friends on Zoom.
“They spend a lot of time online,” Jervonia says. “They spend a lot of time communicating with each other online, even before the pandemic. So, I don’t know if it’s been that bad for her.”
Despite staying connected, Zari says she just misses walking to class with her friends and talking at lunch with them.
The prospect of students and staff returning to school scares Laquanta. She mentions other instances of rushed reopenings in Georgia and is astonished that the expectation will be for teachers to disinfect their rooms in-between classes.
“They said they’ll have the classrooms fully equipped with sanitizing products,” she says. “Are you kidding me? You gotta pretty much have your own personal maintenance worker.”
There’s already too much to think about. She’s had a migraine all week. “I usually can work good under pressure, but this is a different kind of pressure,” she admits. “Me being new to the position, and then having to go through all of this at the same time—I think that’s what it is.”
Her work never stops. The kids and their parents need her, not to mention her own sons, Jurel and Amarion. The rest will have to wait.
“I don’t go anywhere unless it’s absolutely necessary,” she says. “I’m mentally exhausted, and all I can do is close my eyes. And I’m going to sleep in a way where I don’t even know I’m asleep until I wake up.” ♦
This story was updated to reflect APS’s decision on Friday, October 16 to postpone a return to classrooms until 2021.
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