COVINGTON, Ga. — For many, it may resemble their kitchen; for some, it may be likened to their bedroom or play area. Regardless, there’s no arguing classrooms will look a lot different for Newton County students this fall.
With an exception made for self-contained, special-education students, Newton County Schools will have its students start the new year Tuesday, Sept. 8, with virtual instruction, meaning all classes will be taken online until more students are allowed to return for in-person instruction. The decision was made due to the spread of COVID-19 across the county.
As many parents and others have voiced their concerns over how the decision could affect students, they aren’t alone. The 2020-2021 school year will be a year unlike any other for teachers, too. Lewis Kelly, an epidemiology and physical science teacher at Newton High School, said “different” could mean lots of difficulties for he and his colleagues.
Preparing to teach students through an online-only platform has been far from what the Newton County School System’s 2019 Teacher of the Year is familiar with, and it’s been challenging to adjust.
“I’ve had to become a lot more tech savvy than I was,” Kelly said. “The county has provided ample training to help, but it took a minute to wrap my head around what to do and how to do it. My biggest adjustment will be teaching to a screen. I never realized how attached I was to in-person teaching.
“I became accustomed to interacting verbally and non-verbally with my students. To be able to physically approach my students and help them as a group or one-on-one. Virtually, I can place students in breakout sessions, but I miss the personal interaction.”
Like others across the county, Kelly shares concerns about the school year as it pertains to the health and safety of students, teachers and administrators, among other things.
“I am concerned about safety and spreading of COVID-19,” he said. “I’m concerned about how we balance quality education with safety. I’m concerned and interested in the long-term effects of virtual learning, if any.”
Kelly was also curious to see how virtual instruction is utilized within schools in the future.
“I would be interested to see if K-12 education will change and incorporate virtual teaching into regular practices,” he said. “Virtual teaching could be used to help suspended or sick students keep up with content. It could help students move at their own pace. A teacher could teach their class from home if they need to stay home due to their own or a family member’s illness. I think this is a great time for K-12 education to evolve and adapt its practices.”
In a virtual setting, it can become easy for students to get distracted and disengaged — a tremendous challenge Kelly and other teachers are working to combat — but there are ways to help students stay engaged, he said.
“It’s challenging enough to hold the attention of a teen-ager physically present in the classroom,” Kelly said. “Now the students are at home with twice the distractions and the ability to literally turn you off. I am going to have to be more creative. Normally. I had to compete with a phone. Now I must compete with the phone, the Xbox or PlayStation, whatever is in the fridge, other siblings in the house, bad connections, the bed, etc.”
For parents, Kelly suggested checking in periodically, especially if the parent is required to leave their home for work and the student must stay home.
“Parents will need to become more tech-savvy to communicate with teachers and make certain their child is keeping up with assignments,” he said.
For students, Kelly said they should take this time seriously to prepare for their individual futures.
“Use this time as training for college or a potential career,” Kelly said. “Many jobs allow employees to telecommute, as well colleges and universities. Use this time to acclimate yourself to this environment and prepare for the future. The student has to be more accountable for their education, especially at the secondary level. The student must resist all the distractions ... and focus on succeeding.”
When issues arise during virtual instruction, Kelly suggested students and parents to remain calm — they are not alone.
“Be patient with one another,” he said. “This is new for everyone. Teachers, parents and students have been thrust into this new situation. We all are at ground zero. The new teacher is at the same level as the seasoned veteran, parents now have to know how to work the technology at the house just as well as the child, the student has to focus and be more accountable for his or her success. There are yet many wrinkles to iron out and obstacles to overcome. We are all in this together and will take all of us patiently working with one another to have success.”