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'It was a hard time for me': Remote learning leaves some Bibb County students behind

Technical difficulties, resources for students with disabilities and finding homeless students factored into why Bibb Schools lost students during remote learning.

MACON, Ga. — Kimberly Harrell says she and her four children are in a better place now than they were just over a year ago.

That's when the pandemic hit and the Bibb County School District switched to virtual learning.

"Being a single mom is not easy, doing that, and you know trying to work with the job as well. So it was like a whole bunch of mixed feelings as well. It was a hard time for me, very hard time," Kimberly Harrell said.

Her daughters Rhanellya Harrell and Ryeena Mallory say they are close to failing their online classes due to technical difficulties and delayed communication with teachers.

"I would come into class and my teacher wouldn't mark me here or when I try to sign in, it won't let me. Most of my work that I had to do, it won't pop up on my screen," Rhanellya Harrell said.

"Next year I graduate, I was so close to getting finishing and then like this pandemic messed everything up because my grades were good," Mallory said.

Kimberly Harrell takes her kids over to Ray Rover's program in South Macon called Streets of Success. Rover helps students ages 8 to 15 with tutoring and mentorship. 

He says students and parents told him how they struggled with virtual learning, and he saw that for himself when they returned to his program.

"The technology lapse between parent and child and connecting with the school, sometimes that failed and the children were missed out and sometimes, some of them just checked out. They just didn't go or they didn't check in. So that's how I think the school lost some of them is I think they just didn't check back in with the school," Rover said.

Lack of devices and technical difficulties posed challenges for many students during the virtual switch in March  2020. 

Georgia Public Broadcasting reported 14% of Bibb Schools' student population and about 3,000 of them never signed on.

Two months later, Superintendent Curtis Jones told the Wall Street Journal In a podcast interview that virtual learning caused the most problems for students with disabilities and homeless students.

"The bigger challenge ended up being homeless students. Students who come to us, we know that they had issues with having a permanent residence, and we lost track of some of those students. That hurt, because the place we could see them was when they came to school. Now that they're not coming to school, now that cell phones aren't working, now that the address is not there, we couldn't find some of those students. So, those vulnerable students probably are the ones who lost the most," Jones said in the interview.

He told the Journal that about 3% of Bibb's students are homeless -- which is more than 600 children.

And half of them never signed on.

In July, Jones told the Journal in a follow-up interview how they worked through the summer to track them down.

"In the spring, we were really hesitant to send the homeless liaisons out. Now, we're more confident. We have a process in mind where if we lose contact with a student, we can put that person in one of our system vehicles along with a part of our security force and they can go out and visit the family and the student to find out what's happening. That's going to be better," Jones said in the interview.

Other students didn't have a device to use for virtual. To help close that gap, the district spent about $6.5 million to purchase and distribute about 13,000 devices to students for the 8-week virtual start to the Fall 2020 semester. Harrell is still working to get her daughters back on track, but they're hopeful they'll get through it.

"It was a lot of miscommunication with me and my daughter at one time, and then I had to really ask her like everyday, 'Is everything okay with your classes? Are you having problems? If so we need to call the school'," Kimberly Harrell said.

"I already go through a lot as it is and they want to pile work and it's stressing to the point where I just gave up, but I'm not going to give up," Mallory said.

At the start of the Fall 2020 school year, Bibb Schools' enrollment dropped by about 430 students from the previous year. 

77 of those students dropped out from lack of attendance. 316 dropped out for unknown reasons.

Superintendent Jones declined to interview for this story.

   

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