(NEW YORK) — As the coronavirus has prompted the sudden cancellation of classes for 37 million (and counting) students across the nation, one Georgia school district has already launched its first foray into tele-schooling, providing students with everything from band practice and physical education to algebra and English.
Living rooms and home offices across Fulton County, Georgia, were transformed into virtual classrooms on Monday for the more than 93,000 students and 14,000 employees displaced by the pandemic that has killed thousands of people worldwide.
“It’s just been a really inspiring day from my prospective to see our teachers, and our students and our parents all coalesce around this one idea, and that is to keep our students’ lives as normal as possible and continue the learning process during these challenging times,” Fulton County School District Superintendent Mike Looney told ABC News at the end of the first day.
As more and more school districts across the nation are being forced to cancel classes indefinitely as social distancing takes hold as the chief way to combat the virus, officially referred to as COVID-19, education officials have been brainstorming to institute remote school options.
On Sunday evening, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made the decision to cancel classes for the city’s 1.1 million students until at least April 20 while warning of the likelihood that schools won’t reopen for the remainder of the school year. The decision left New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza scrambling to put together a remote-learning system by March 23.
Carranza said his school district, the largest in the nation, is working with Apple to buy 300,000 iPads that will be supplied to students who don’t have the devises and to provide them with internet access.
Other major cities have also closed schools, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Looney announced on March 10 that all schools in his Atlanta-area district would close after two staff members contracted the virus.
“We’re lucky in that we have some really talented people at the school level and at the district level and so when I made the decision to close school last week because of the two confirmed cases in our school district, we immediately began putting ideas on paper and running it through our decision-making process, and honestly they did some great work,” Looney said.
“We have some really good partnerships. We are getting support from our technology partners,” Looney said. “I’ve really been overwhelmed by the number of families and churches and just interested citizens wanting to find ways to pitch in.”
Many teachers, students and parents in the Fulton County School District were posting photos and videos on Twitter under the #FCSrising hashtag.
“Every school is doing it a little bit differently. We put some frameworks in place along with our expectations,” Looney said. “We’re teaching everything from band digitally all the way to physical education and traditional subjects like algebra and English.”
Jeff Rose, the former superintendent of the school district and the parent of two school-aged children, told ABC News that the system Looney and his team put into place seemed to be going well on the first day.
“School districts don’t have infrastructure to naturally shift to weeks and weeks of online learning. So they’ve had to adjust quickly and in my mind are doing a good job,” Rose said. “They’ve readily admitted this is not the same as face-to-face instruction. But so far so good. I assume there will be some level of complications and snags along the way, but under the circumstances it seems as though the level of patients amidst the community is supportive. More supportive than if it were just a snow day.”
He said his daughter, who is in high school, and his middle schooler son spent about 2 1/2 hours each in online classes on Monday morning and the rest of the morning doing homework.
Tech companies are also helping out in the crunch.
Eric Yuan, the founder and CEO of the online video-conferencing giant Zoom, said his company is offering its video chat tools for free to students K-12 in countries affected by the virus, including the United States, Italy, Japan and China.
“I feel like overnight, this is one of the catalysts where in every country, everybody’s realized they needed to have a tool like Zoom to connect their people,” Yuan told Forbes magazine. “I think from that perspective, we feel very proud. We’ve seen that what we are doing here, we can contribute a bit to the world.”
Other tech titans are also pitching in: Adobe is offering free at-home access until the end of May to its Creative Cloud apps to students who usually only have access on-campus. The education tech company Age of Learning is offering free home access to its ABCmouse, Adventures Academy and Reading IQ digital education programs for displaced students under the age of 13. Google is also offering its G Suite Hangouts Meet video conferencing software for free through July 1 to help students and teachers stay connected during the coronavirus crisis.
Shamus Khan, chairman of Columbia University’s sociology department, told ABC News on Monday that he and other volunteers are working on a teaching website they plan to launch on Wednesday to help students constructively occupy their time away from the physical classroom.
“I knew that this would fall hugely on parents,” Khan said of the school closures. “There’s this idea in sociology called ‘structural holes’ where there’s a group of people who have needs and there’s a group of people who have capacities and in between them there is a structural hole, where nothing is connecting the people with needs to the people with capacities. If you can fill the structural hole, that’s great.
“So I thought maybe there’s a way in which there’s a group of people with needs which includes both kids and parents, there’s a group of people with capacities, people like me and others without those kids who have teaching skill sets. What we could do is provide a really basic infrastructure to sort of bridge those two groups.”
He said once up his website, which he is not ready to publicize a URL for, will offer 55 to 60 classes for students up to age 12.
Khan said a Princeton University African-American studies professor has volunteered to read kindergarteners books from different parts of the world to introduce them to different cultures. Another educator plans to conduct a course on the science of sleep and why we dream, and Khan said he’s going to teach children how to produce ethnographic accounts of what it has been like for them and their families during the crisis.
“So the idea is to expand kids’ minds a little bit, to give them something to do, to connect them with somebody outside in the world while their trapped inside their houses, and to give parent a little bit of relief,” he said. “For me there are lots of benefits to this. One is to help the people out, but the other is that in this time of social distancing, trying to create social cohesion is really important. I wanted to think about ways in which people would feel less alone in their apartments.”
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