BY SABRINA BATES
WEAKLEY COUNTY (August 26) – When the global health pandemic closed schools in March throughout the county, the circumstances surrounding education became a fluid one for the Weakley County School System. After forming teams charged with the tasks of creating learning environments and options for families before the start of the new school year this month. One option was a traditional setting for children that included mask-wearing when entering and leaving the building, temperature checks, social distancing and a later start date. The system saw 3,330 enrolled into the traditional program with a class start date of August 17, 2020.
Even though a traditional setting was the option taken by Martin mom Priscilla Price for her three children, she said her family didn’t feel any of the options were risk-free.
“Like so many, my husband (Michael) and I were torn about sending our kids back to traditional school. It wasn’t an easy decision. The inconsistent direction about precautions and mandates added to the pressure. We know that everyone has worked very hard to make school safe. We didn’t feel that any of the choices were risk free. Risk of COVID-19, risk of falling behind, risk of not being able to adequately support our kids while learning online,” Price shared.
“It boiled down to our kids needing teacher and social interaction. I think our children would have benefited more from a hybrid school year. Perhaps the students could have alternated days to reduce the amount of students in a classroom each day allowing for the recommended six feet apart. This would have also allowed for transitioning into online learning on their off days and to get to know their teachers. But this is all new to everyone,” she added.
The Martin mom said she thinks her children are happy with being back at school, with their friends, in a traditional setting. Afternoon pick-ups come with rundowns of how students were absent from the children’s classroom that day; news and updates about extracurricular educational clubs and a few complaints from the youngest child, 11-year-old Greylon, about wearing a mask. From what she is told by her high-schoolers, 13-year-old Gavin and Gabrielle, one student in their class hasn’t taken off his mask since the start of the school year, not even to eat lunch at the school. Desks are approximately three-feet apart and the kids might miss out on things they looked forward to beginning their high-school years.
“The band will not be participating in competitions or traveling to games, but the athletic teams are allowed to travel and participate in games. There are still so many unanswered questions about clubs such as BETA or STEM. And there are so many things that the kids were looking forward to for their first year of high school. It is hard to explain and answer questions because of all the unknown,” she shared.
With all of the uncertainty and the unusual circumstances, Price commended the system and administration for their efforts to help keep her children safe while in school.
“I know all the teachers and administrators are under tremendous pressure and working very hard. I greatly appreciate their dedication and everything they do for all my children! I hope everyone stays well, masks-up and practices social distancing,” she added.
A second option for Weakley County students included a virtual setting, known as Monitored Distance Education (MDE). As the program is very new to the school system, 542 students opted for the virtual classroom setting as of last week. Once enrollment was finalized, the program kicked off with Zoom meetings for students to get to know their teachers and peers.
Ashley Vanmeter of Martin said she and her husband Matt had a couple of reasons for taking the virtual approach for their two children – Alayna, 13 and Fisher, 11.
Vanmeter works in a nursing home with potential exposure to COVID-19. She said she wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing the virus home to her children unknowingly, then sending them to a classroom and causing a potential spread. She said the virtual option also fits well with the family’s schedule as both parents work 12-hour shifts.
“It’s amazing to not have to worry if they are getting up on time to get on the bus and how they are getting home. We have a few immunocompromised people in our family and the way this disease is spreading, I found it to be more safe for us to just stay in our bubble until this calms down. I have to admit I did not think it would go this well but the kids love it and they are actually excited to work on school work! If they need help they have a teacher ready to help and they can learn at their own pace,” Vanmeter explained.
She said her children have Zoom meetings once a week for about an hour with their classmates, while the teacher explains what she expects while they get to know eachother.
“It works pretty much like any online class. They check in daily and that confirms their attendance for the day. The teacher can monitor how many hours they are working on each subject and see where they need help and where they are succeeding. They can message or call the teacher at anytime for help. Their work is usually graded right after it’s completed,” Vanmeter shared.
While she was uncertain how her children would adjust to virtual learning and the self-discipline involved, the Martin mom said she is amazed at how disciplined her children have been about getting up, getting their coursework completed and staying ahead.
Although the public school system set up traditional and virtual options for their students, a third option was already in place for families that wanted a more hands-on approach to their children’s education though homeschooling.
Ashlee Gonzalez of Martin chose that path for her two schoolchildren last year and given the current global health pandemic, she said her son and daughter have felt less of the effects of the COVID impact to traditional schooling. After feeling a pull for a couple of years to opt for homeschooling her children, Gonzalez said making the switch was a benefit for her entire family.
“Unfortunately, this isn’t the world I grew up in anymore and I didn’t like the things my children were being exposed to at a younger and younger age on the bus, on the playground, etc. The other thing was that it seemed the students were being expected to do more and more work and had less and less time to be kids. Lilli would come home and spend two hours on homework after sitting at a desk in school all day. After researching and learning that children are only required four hours of school 180 days a year, I really felt strongly that I needed to pull them from public school and teach them myself so that is what I did. Last year was an adjustment. Both of my school-aged children struggled with me being their mom and their teacher. We power struggled, but we made it,” she shared.
She said she learned the world is a classroom and her children didn’t have to look at a book to actually be learning. Gonzalez’s children keep a normal-to-them routine, which consists of the children beginning their coursework in the morning, finishing up by lunchtime and the rest of the day is used for hands-on activities minus written homework.
“They love to make things, build things, bake things and use their imaginations. They aren’t stressed out about school and are learning to love to learn, which is so important in my opinion. … I chose homeschooling over an online public school for flexibility. I did not want to be mandated to a time schedule. Like today, we got reading and some math done, then went to the splash pad for the outing with the Heights group, came home and finished up school. If we are having a bad day, we can just choose to put the books away and learn by cooking or going on a nature walk,” she shared.
Gonzalez added there are programs available for homeschool families to extend learning through places such as Discovery Park of America in Union City and various local libraries. Her daughter was able to experience joining a 4-H Club, while her son will begin taekwondo classes soon.
For the Gonzalez family, homeschooling provides the experiences Ashlee sought for her children.
BY SABRINA BATES