In-person or remote learning? Let each family decide.

How Henry County Schools in Georgia is planning for a personal choice between continuing to learn from home and returning to school
By: | May 28, 2020
Eagle’s Landing Middle School, like other schools in Henry County, will have less students attending in person this coming year, since some families will opt for remote learning instead.Eagle’s Landing Middle School, like other schools in Henry County, will have less students attending in person this coming year, since some families will opt for remote learning instead.

While the exact timing of a safe return to schools may still be up in the air, parents and students in Henry County, Georgia, know they’ll have a choice: continue staying at home or go back to school. Letting families decide what works best for their individual situations may be the decision many other districts wind up making, as well.

With 50 schools and 42,000 students in Henry County Schools, ironing out the logistics will be no easy task. But the choice, according to Superintendent Mary Elizabeth Davis, best fit the situation.

“Families have to gauge their comfort level and readiness, considering the academic success of the child and the health and welfare of the child,” says Davis, who has led the district for the past few years. “Families are grappling with all their realities. We want to build options for families so they can find a match at the right time.”

Beginning with that as the basic problem statement, district leaders began to weave in possible solutions. “Part of our job will be to balance the ever-present risk with the responsibility of a public institution in a community—and you can’t do this without the context of your own community,” says Davis.

Finances certainly played a role in crafting the choice scenario. “We have to be able to afford our solution,” Davis points out. “So many of the solutions being generated are not going to be financially possible.” Social distancing with most students in school buildings could require double the busing or double the facilities space. Even split day sessions would strain the teacher workforce, she adds, with a high percentage of teachers having children and other family responsibilities.

Although every district’s situation will impact specifics, here’s how Henry County is approaching various aspects of its plan, which is still taking shape:

1. Getting an understanding of teacher needs and concerns.

Davis is talking with teachers to ask them about their experiences with teaching remotely, including what went well, what didn’t, and what they need—as well as what their reactions are to the concept of social distancing in classroom and throughout school buildings.

Mary Elizabeth Davis, superintendent, Henry County Schools

Mary Elizabeth Davis, superintendent, Henry County Schools

With no teachers union in Henry County, moving forward with the choice plan was simpler than it would have been with union negotiations involved, Davis says. “We can be a little more agile in our approach.” The district does have a teacher advisory group.

2. Soliciting viewpoints of families—and not just once.

A mid-May survey of families, teachers and students was rolled out to get a sense of what the decision would be on fall learning location if he had to be made that day. “We are about split,” says Davis, adding that about 5,000 people responded and another survey may go out in a few weeks “to see if it’s going to tilt one way or the other.” Virtual town halls are also planned for more anecdotal perspective.

“I understand that there’s a lot of anxiety and concern, and rightly so, and I respect that—while balancing the responsibility the school system has to be an accessible public institution,” Davis notes. “The choice will allow people to self-select what’s more comfortable for themselves.”

Some families have found their children have as much or even more success with remote learning. If their circumstances can support high levels of learning, they may opt-in to continue with that. But about an equal number of families seem to be looking to get their kids back to their peers and teachers.

3. Setting a timeframe for each family’s decision.

The district’s goal is for families to make their choices by mid-July, which would provide two weeks to get logistics in place. “It will be a mad dash for staffing, but I’m reminded that every start to school begins that way,” Davis says. “Every year you have students showing up who weren’t part of the projections and who leave that weren’t part of the projections. We’re going to do our best with our staffing.”

Administrators are setting up a school-within-a-school model, with each building having its own remote learning alternative. It would be similar to families within a school opting into a dual immersion program—and allow families to stay within the school they know and will eventually return to.

4. Working with community stakeholders.

Although local revenue looks “pretty steady,” Henry County is expecting a 14% cut from state revenue, so district leaders are considering the various types of cuts that could occur, says Davis. She is staying in close touch with the county manager, chamber of commerce and economic director to collaborate on the re-opening of schools. “Superintendents are in a great position to unify their communities,” she adds. “Everyone’s worried about the funding but we’re all in that part together. Communities have realized just how vital public schools are.”

5. Developing staffing plans.

Henry County leaders are building schedules around individual teachers being assigned to remote teaching or an in-person classroom. “Some teachers are incredibly effective as remote learning teachers,” says Davis. Administrators and educators are reflecting now on the attributes and skills that teachers who have thrived in this environment share. “We have talked about our experiences over the past 10 weeks to start in building out an understanding of strategically staffing that,” she adds.

Some support specialists, such as occupational therapists, physical therapists or speech pathologists—who tend to be assigned to multiple schools already—may find themselves teaching some of the time in schools and some of the time remotely.

As for educators who may be nervous about going back because of their health or for other reasons, the district is handling requests on an individualized basis, Davis says. State and local guidance for employees returning to workplaces will be followed.

6. Striving to offer the best possible learning opportunities.

An advantage for Henry County is that it had a pre-pandemic online program for grades 6 to 12 already. “We’re going to expand that to be K-12 learning. Kids still need to be learning in these challenging and unusual times,” Davis says.

In addition, students in grades three to 12 already had their own devices when schools shut down. Devices for students in kindergarten, first and second grade are in schools but will have to be made off-campus ready for those who need one.

7. Preparing for social distancing practices.

Having a large number of students learning from home will help with social distancing, but Davis recognizes the additional challenge of people missing being together but needing to keep them physically apart when school initially open.

8. Having a plan for families starting the year remote coming back.

As the number of families opting for remote learning dwindles, an additional transition will need to happen. “There will be transition pathways for families changing their minds,” Davis says. She compares it to the logistics of transitioning to or out of an intervention program, or into a career pathway in high school. “We’ll build the same concept into transition plans,” she says, adding the grade reporting marketing periods will be the suggested timing.

Also read: What price could some districts pay to reopen schools safely?

9. Keeping action plans agile.

Henry County’s school year is scheduled for an August 3 start. “We believe it’s our responsibility to be prepared to go on campus unless an executive order restricts it,” Davis says. But a delayed start scenario is in the works in case it’s needed. The key, she adds, is having action plans that can be repositioned quickly as needed.

She anticipates some families who opt in to remote learning having concerns about extracurriculars and the ability to still participate. “We’re not looking to create new bureaucracies. We’re looking to be flexible,” Davis says.

All in all, it’s a tough time to be leading a school district, but she’s keeping her eye on the core aims of continuing to educate students in the best way possible. “There are logistical nightmares all around,” she says. “But I’ve learned a lot from reading what our peers are doing around the country, how others are solving problems we’re all facing—even though none of us can solve them in the same way because community context needs to be applied.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of DA.

Full coverage of coronavirus in schools, including more on how schools are planning to reopen, can be found here

Interested in edtech? Keep up with DA's Future of Education Technology Conference®.