Southwest Georgia has seen its share of disasters over the past few years, including tornadoes and hurricanes in 2017 and 2018 that tore through the community, destroying farms and homes and temporarily disrupting schools.
But nothing so far compares to how coronavirus has ravaged this corner of the state, anchored by Albany, the region's largest city.
Albany and surrounding Dougherty County have lost at least 120 residents to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, as April drew to a close. That's on par with the number of deaths in Atlanta and Fulton County, which has a population more than ten times higher. The rate of infection in Dougherty County, home to about 90,000 people, is comparable to that of New York City.
It's a massive burden for any community to bear, let alone one that is largely rural and poor. And the 14,000-student Dougherty County school system, the largest district in the region, is in the middle of it. By late April, the district had 33 employees who had either been ill themselves, or who had to cope with the illness or death of a close family member. One district employee, a school crossing guard, has died.
The disruption and turmoil has landed on a school system that already trails state averages on some measures of academic achievement. Thirty-one percent of the county's 3rd graders read at or above grade level, compared to 48 percent statewide. And 41 percent of the county's 8th graders read at or above grade level, compared to about 60 percent statewide.
But there are academic bright spots. The district's four-year graduation rate of 85 percent is slightly higher than Georgia's 82 percent graduation rate. And five of the system's 21 schools were designated in 2019 as "beating the odds," with higher academic performance than other schools in the state with similar demographics.
Superintendent Kenneth Dyer gives a press briefing on the district's plans to provide instruction while schools are locked down.
Courtesy of J.D. Sumner/Dougherty County Schools
Now, as Georgia moves to aggressively-and some have argued, prematurely-restart its economy, the school district is weighing what happens next and how it will help its students keep up after losing so much face-to-face learning time.
"We have a community with a higher-than-average poverty rate, and we have a lot of students who have needs that go beyond the classroom," said Kenneth Dyer, an Albany native appointed superintendent in 2017. To move forward, the district will have to make sure all those needs are met, he said.
"It's not new to us what we're doing now," Dyer said. "We're just doing it differently."
Dougherty County is part of the "black belt" of the American South, a crescent of some 600 counties that stretches from East Texas, through the deep South and into Virginia. The name first came from the dark, fertile soil in the region, and now refers to the largely black population in those areas.
Albany also has a rich civil rights history. The desegregation effort known as the Albany Movement included the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr., who said he took what he learned from that campaign to his later work in Birmingham, Ala.
The coronavirus outbreak in the region is linked to two well-attended funerals in late February and early March. An infected person also served as a juror on a murder trial that ended March 12, setting off an outbreak among courthouse personnel.
By the time the county announced a shelter-in-place order on March 21, the virus had already taken hold. Several surrounding counties have also been heavily impacted, but their overall death and infection numbers are lower because they are more sparsely populated.
"And it's not over," said Demetrius Young, an Albany city commissioner. "It's just a staggering thing-you can't really fully grasp it. You're waiting for the phone to ring, did you hear about somebody else? It's really kind of heart-wrenching."
The pace of infections, hospitalizations and deaths in Georgia is slowing, according to state health statistics. Still, the community is coping with the "sheer traumatic aspect of this," Dyer said.
"I spoke to one parent who has two middle school students in our schools. Her mother's been in intensive care for over a week. And her mother does not know that her sister died from COVID-19," Dyer said. "So [the parent] is planning a funeral for her aunt and dealing with her mother."
The children get good grades during normal times. But schoolwork is the last thing on the family's mind right now, Dyer said.
"We can strike a balance between academic accountability and meeting the needs of families, taking some of the pressure off of families where we can," Dyer said.
For example, the district has four health clinics, a vision clinic and a mental health clinic operating out of its schools; it has been able to leave two clinics open for children and families who have health needs unrelated to the coronavirus.
School counselors are also pushing out nonacademic supports for students, such as videos offering lessons on coping skills that they can watch on their own time.
"I firmly believe they need to see us," said Stacey Cross, an elementary guidance counselor. But she is also sensitive not to make parents feel like they're being bombarded by information when they are already juggling so much.
"We're hoping that we're reaching out to the students, maybe touching some that we're not touching through the e-learning. We're telling them we miss you, we love you, we can't wait until we can all be together again," Cross said.
Like school districts all over the nation, Dougherty scrambled to provide food, worksheets, computers and wireless internet "hotspots" to its students. The school system closed to in-person classes on March 13, five days before the state as a whole shut down schools.
But in some ways, the district already had built a foundation for what it is going through now. The district, nearly 90 percent black, also has more than two-thirds of students designated as "economically disadvantaged"-living in families that are eligible for food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, for example.
Remote learning-and the ensuing concern about students who don't have computers and regular internet access-has drawn a spotlight nationwide. In Dougherty schools, those equity issues have always been front and center, because of local poverty levels, said Cheryl Smith, the district's director of curriculum and instruction.
Back in 2014, the district budgeted $15 million to provide computers for every student in grades 3-12. Younger students have access to classroom iPads. Along with the purchases, the district has also invested in professional development for teachers on platforms such as Google Classroom.
"Of course, we wanted to give our students access to technology," Smith said. "But we also wanted to provide a targeted, individualized learning path for our students."
A week before Dougherty County schools closed, the district polled families to find out how many had access to reliable internet service. About 60 percent of those who responded said they did, but Dyer said some of those families are thinking of cellphones.
"When Mom and Dad take the cellphone, then the internet goes," he said.
The district had 1,000 wireless hotspots, Dyer said. That's not enough for all the families that needed them, so the district prioritized getting them to high school seniors and to students who are dual-enrolled in high school and college courses, so that they would not fall behind in their college coursework.
Dougherty County has also stuck with an "asynchronous" instructional model, rather than requiring students to sign in at a certain time every day. And it sends out work packets to families on school buses, along with district-provided meals. With the community under a shelter-in-place order that has only recently ended, and a number of families with limited transportation options, sending food out into the community made more sense than requiring families to come to centralized locations, said the superintendent.
The district also decided that students could choose to end the year with the grades they had when schools closed to in-person instruction, as long as their grade averages were at 70 percent or higher. Those with lower averages must work to pull their grades up during the remaining weeks of remote instruction left in this academic year; students who meet the 70 percent mark can choose to continue working for a higher grade.
Sharon Peoples, whose 15-year-old daughter Amari Cody is a 9th grader in the district, has chosen to have her child continue instruction in several classes, even though her grades are high.
"They're already out a long time during the summer, and an additional month or a month and a half was going to be too much leisure time," Peoples said. "And I didn't want to be responsible for assigning her things. It was a great opportunity and a great option to continue."
Amid all the uncertainty, Silvana Jenkins, a 4th grade math teacher who was spared COVID-19 even as her husband recovers from the disease, echoed some of the sentiments as the superintendent: The work underway now is similar to what teachers have always done. Teachers take students with different levels of preparation, and bring them forward.
"The gaps may be a little wider than normal, but we would have seen gaps anyway," said Jenkins. "We know we're going to have to bridge them."
With Georgia schools closed for the academic year and distance learning in Dougherty underway for more than a month, the system is now turning its attention to how it will help students make up academic ground in the summer.
But it's also facing the prospect of a financially precarious 2020-21 school year, whether its schools open for traditional instruction, remote learning, or a blend of the two. State budget analysts estimate that Georgia is looking at a nearly $3 billion shortfall by the end of the next fiscal year, and Dougherty schools are highly dependent on state aid. Local tax revenue is also expected to be down due to the pandemic's impact.
Members of the schools superintendent's cabinet, sitting six feet apart, discuss the hard-hit district's response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Courtesy of J.D. Sumner/Dougherty County Schools
If those shortfalls are passed along to the local school systems, Dyer said, the district may find itself needing to make cuts at the very time that it would want to invest more on technology and social and emotional supports for grieving students.
"Our governor has done a good job supporting public education," Dyer said. "But if we don't get federal relief, there are going to be some really tough decisions to be made."
Dougherty County administrators are drafting a plan for a distance-learning summer school program focused on remediation and credit-recovery for high school seniors. Typically, the district would also offer enrichment classes, but boosting students who have fallen behind is the priority now, Dyer said.
And what about the fall? Dyer said the district is preparing for traditional classroom instruction if health officials give the green light. But the district is also prepared to continue a remote program, or offer a hybrid model that could, for example, accommodate parents who don't feel comfortable sending their children to a school building.
One lesson taken away from this school year is that worksheets are a poor substitute for computer-based instruction, Dyer said. The district received an outside grant to purchase an additional 1,400 computers and 1,400 wireless internet hotspots that will be distributed among four elementary schools and a middle school. But the district could need about 4,500 more hotspots, Dyer acknowledged, to provide reliable access to all students.
The district is also planning a school schedule that will provide four days of instruction, plus a fifth day of remediation for students who need it, Dyer said. Some early assessments will help determine which students will need that extra help, he said.
The governor's order allowing some businesses to reopen does not permit Dougherty County to retain stricter restrictions on its residents or businesses. But whether, and how, schools reopen is a local decision, Dyer said. That's why staff are weighing multiple options, a time-consuming but necessary task.
"It's tough work," he said. "But I can't think of anything that's more important than making sure our students feel loved and supported."