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'We're making the best of a situation that nobody asked for' | Marietta superintendent discusses the digital learning curve

Teachers and students in Marietta City Schools are still adapting to the new norm – online classes.

Whether they were ready or not, Georgia schools have shifted to an online platform. In Cobb County, the Marietta City School District was already preparing for this shift. It just came much sooner than expected.

“We planned a three-year rollout for a digital learning platform,” superintendent Grant Rivera said. “We were fortunate in Marietta. We actually launched it back in July, but I'm going to be honest with you - we took what was a remaining two and a half years, and we basically did it in three days like many businesses across the country.”

He said it’s been a major learning curve for everyone involved, partially because it is no longer a short term thing. Governor Brian Kemp closed schools for in-person education for the rest of the school year when he issued the statewide stay-at-home order.

“I was just talking to a Marietta City School student yesterday who I saw walking in the neighborhood, and that child wants so badly to see his teacher,” Rivera said. “I think that once upon a time we took for granted a teacher who said ‘good morning’ and gave you a hug. Now, what I think has changed so significantly is that kids miss that interaction. They miss their peers. They miss their role models. They miss the familiarity of a school cafeteria and a school classroom.”

But it’s not just the students who are adjusting to a new way of doing things, he said. Educators are also trying to adapt.

“Everybody's trying to figure out how we make this as normal as possible for children, and at the same exact time, teachers who are really in this people business we call school are learning how to adjust as well,” Rivera said. “They're missing their kids, and they're missing their colleagues, and we're asking them to juggle family at home, or juggle potentially aging parents at home, while they at the exact same time serve 20 or 25 or 30 kids digitally. Everything in our world has been flipped upside down. What I'm grateful for in Marietta, and I think across this country, is the resiliency of adults and the resiliency of children. We're figuring it out together, and we're finding the silver linings. We're making the best of a situation that nobody asked for.”

One of the main obstacles, he said, is making sure students continue learning from home. The district recently loaned out more than 2,200 Chromebooks and 350 hotspots to students who live in a home without internet, River said. And it seems to have helped with the online engagement, he said.

Credit: Marietta City Schools

“I can tell you that in Marietta K through 12, we have 82% of our kids who have logged into our digital platform within the last five days, so we know kids are engaging,” Rivera said. “At Marietta High School, we have 86% of our students logged in within the last five days to connect with their teacher, to complete an assignment, what have you.”

Simply put, he said, some have transitioned without problem, and some have not.

“The reality is this pivot in a matter of days to online learning, it only further separates the haves and the have nots,” Rivera said. “And it further creates a crack through which students who are at risk and students who might traditionally struggle because of the home life, because of learning needs or whatever the case may be, that's where our responsibility is as adults to really virtually reach out and help these kids.”

He said there are dedicated staff members checking in on the students weekly, and, in some cases, daily. As for the students who’ve been silent since their last day of “traditional learning” on Friday, March 13, Rivera said the district is not giving up on them.

“We’re working in collaboration with the Marietta Police Department to do welfare checks to check on children,” he said. “In Marietta, our priority is no child disappears. So either you're engaging with the teacher and you are meeting us halfway, or we are working to find you and do what we need to do to make sure you're safe, then eventually get you back connected to learning.”

The question remains – how might the recent shift to digital learning affect the graduation rate?

“I don't candidly know how the Georgia Department of Education is going to handle calculating graduation rate,” he said. “That's way above my paygrade.”

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