By Benita M. Dodd
Georgia’s 181 public school districts are grappling with when and how to return students and staff safely to the classroom as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on. Given all the moving parts – including a pandemic that was expected to dissipate in the summer heat – it’s no wonder many districts are delaying the start of the news school year. But a sense of urgency is growing.
Georgia students got out of school in mid-March. Families are uneasy. Some are protesting to get children back in school; others demand they stay home a while longer. Some parents are opting to homeschool. Others are pooling resources to create community “micro schools,” small pods of children whose education they group-manage.
Parents may choose the private school route. But, as the Cato Institute reports, many private schools – without access to federal pandemic assistance that public schools receive – are closing their doors permanently. Derrell Bradford, executive director of the New York Campaign for Achievement Now (NYCAN), warned:
If 20 percent of currently enrolled private and homeschool students — about 1.5 million of them — were to show up at district schools because their schools closed or their parents could no longer teach them, state public education systems would be physically and financially overwhelmed.
Online public education seems like a viable alternative. Even so, Georgia’s schoolchildren deserve educators who know how to use the tools for academic success. At the 2020 Georgia Legislative Policy Forum, homeschooling parent Ana Martin and Angela Lassetter, head of Georgia Cyber Academy, both described the stopgap online schooling as “emergency learning,” not yet a virtual success.
Then there are the students with special needs. While some low-income students face technology shortcomings – no device or broadband – funding can overcome that. But some struggle with mental health challenges and learning disabilities and desperately need the “personal touch,” specialized education and socialization of a disciplined classroom setting.
Despite the choices available to many, ultimately, the vast majority of Georgia’s families are waiting for their children to return to local public schools and brick-and-mortar classrooms. These include working couples, single working parents, extended families with grandparents at home, and – for many – grandparents with custody or after-school responsibilities for K-12 children.
Therein lies the rub. Schools are working to socially distance students and classes. Controlling the campus is one thing; minimizing the risk for students, staff and visitors entering campuses day in and out is another. Some have irresponsible relatives. Others have ailing or aged relatives at risk.
Fortunately, the education uncertainty is being resolved by innovative Georgia companies. One such is ESE Telehealth, a provider whose customers include 21 schools across the state (41 when the new school year starts). The company was developed by Valdosta native Wayne Pearson, a former ESPN producer who founded ESE Networks, a thriving school sports and education broadcast company.
ESE Telehealth supplies its school partners with a $45,000 state-of-the-art digital medical equipment unit, trains the school nursing staff and provides tech support. Within 15 minutes of their appointment, a student or staff member who visits the school nurse is seen and diagnosed remotely by one of the company’s nurse practitioners. Parents can participate in the digital consultation via their smartphone, from home or work. School staff has unlimited telehealth access; digital health records follow the child.
Since the pandemic, the telehealth service has added a no-touch thermometer station that can be placed at the school door. Attached to a camera, it identifies each individual and alerts to temperature anomalies. It clears staff to work, with ESE Telehealth providing a COVID-19 rapid self-test for a teacher whose condition raises concerns.
Telehealth has been a saving grace already through the pandemic, and Georgia already is a telehealth role model. Few schools can afford a doctor or lab onsite. Proven, Georgia-grown innovations that can expedite students’ safe return to school deserve the full, immediate attention of state education and health authorities.
Benita M. Dodd is Vice President of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Established in 1991, the Foundation is a trusted, independent resource for voters and elected officials. The Foundation provides actionable solutions to real-life problems by bringing people together. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (August 7, 2020). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.