School closures, a job loss, and health emergencies: How the pandemic is impacting one family of a student with special needs in Georgia

School closures, a job loss, and health emergencies: How the pandemic is impacting one family of a student with special needs in Georgia

School closures, a job loss, and health emergencies: How the pandemic is impacting one family of a student with special needs in Georgia

Mom and special needs son

Students are missing the magic that happens in a classroom that cannot be replicated on a Zoom call

When the pandemic came home to DeKalb County in March 2020, Jennifer Sheran and her husband never expected that it would touch off a year-long stint of trials.

It all began with the public school system’s transition to online learning. A virtual classroom worked fine for Jennifer’s two older children, but her youngest son, 10-year-old Joey, has Down syndrome. Online learning is entirely unworkable for him due to his special needs.

For example, DeKalb is following a normal bell schedule but staying engaged on Zoom for hours on end is not working. Morning classes will sometimes go well, but by lunchtime Joey is tuned out. It is impossible to get him back online after the lunch break for specials, such as music and art, and Jennifer cannot stay tied up until 2:30pm every day. She has seen academic and social regression for her son as he has little to no interaction with peers.

Additionally, his academic growth is limited due to repetitive practice of current skills on worksheets with no new individual instruction to learn new concepts in language arts or math. As a highly visual and experiential learner, he is missing the magic that happens in a classroom that cannot be replicated on a Zoom call.

“It’s day-by-day and minute-by-minute,” Jennifer shares. “One class he is engaged and on task, and the next minute he is hiding under the bed or taking his shirt off.”

Adding fuel to the fire, Jennifer’s 25-year career in PR and corporate communications hit a speed bump in July when she lost her full-time job. Her income was a significant part of the household budget.

Normally, Jennifer would have launched a job search immediately, but the demands of online learning for Joey meant that she could only pick up a few freelance projects to try and bridge a small part of the gap in their family budget.

Today, nearly a year after DeKalb schools went virtual, Jennifer is getting so desperate that she and her husband have decided to list their home in Dunwoody and move south to Henry County, where public schools have been open for in-person instruction since September.

We’re expanding opportunities and giving new hope to children across the state. All students deserve access to high quality education options. 

Good news on the horizon

Another layer of challenges hit when Jennifer’s mother had a stroke and is now in rehab. With her father already suffering from COPD and advanced kidney disease, the Sherans will be selling their home and moving in with her parents to be caregivers until they can make the permanent move to Henry County.

All schools continue to have their doors shut to in-person learning, Jennifer shares that the special needs community “is getting completely overlooked.”

“In other states and even elsewhere in Georgia, school districts make accommodations, understanding that special-needs students have a need to return back to classrooms earlier than others,” she said.

There is good news on the horizon for families like Jennifer’s: Georgia Governor Brian Kemp recently allocated $10 million in federal emergency relief dollars specifically to reimburse parents of students with special needs for education expenses incurred during the pandemic.

In Jennifer’s case, the funds would be crucial to help hire tutoring help so that she can find more work to make ends meet.

“One-size-fits-all won’t work here,” she said. “We can’t allow our special-needs students to fall even further behind. They will be more dependent on society as they transition to adults. These children are capable of so much if we give them the support they need.”

Welcoming Dr. Cayanna Good to the Georgia Center for Opportunity board of directors

Welcoming Dr. Cayanna Good to the Georgia Center for Opportunity board of directors

Welcoming Dr. Cayanna Good to the Georgia Center for Opportunity board of directors

The Georgia Center for Opportunity team is thrilled to announce that Dr. Cayanna Good, assistant commissioner of adult education for the Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG), has joined our board of directors as its newest member.

Dr. Good comes to the board with a passion for using education reform to help impoverished Georgians break the cycle and thrive. She has over two decades of experience in the world of education—both as a teacher and a leader in education policy and reform.

She shares that she had an eye-opening experience while working as a teacher in a high-poverty school through Teach for America, and then as an elementary school teacher in a wealthier district: “Those experiences taught me that there was something broken in our education system, and I wanted to be part of the solution.”

Her career journey has included serving in education policy positions in Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration, including as executive director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, and in senior-level leadership positions within the Georgia Department of Education.

Dr. Good’s current role is head of the Office of Adult Education for TCSG. She notes that adult literacy is crucial to ending generational poverty. “If you’re not addressing the root cause, the family, you’re always playing catch up. Working with adult literacy means we are working to eliminate generational poverty,” Dr. Good notes.

As for joining the GCO board, Dr. Good says that she jumped at the opportunity. Her biggest goal as a new board member will be to ensure that GCO’s impact and reach go even further.

“I don’t want GCO to be the best kept secret for people who are deeply engaged in this work,” she says. “GCO does so many amazing things. They are known in so many circles, but they aren’t known in all the circles. I’m excited about helping the organization participate in new opportunities, connect with advocacy groups, and help change mindsets around what’s possible in education.

 

Vulnerable kids have been hardest hit by COVID-19 learning losses. We need to get educational options to their families

Vulnerable kids have been hardest hit by COVID-19 learning losses. We need to get educational options to their families

Vulnerable kids have been hardest hit by COVID-19 learning losses. We need to get educational options to their families

By David Bass

There has been much focus—and rightly so—on the nearly 370,000 victims of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., plus the millions more who have been touched by this terrible disease in some way

What hasn’t gotten as much attention are the unseen victims of the pandemic: The tens of millions of low-income, vulnerable students who have experienced devastating learning losses due to school closures and lack of educational options.

Highlighting this disturbing trend, McKinsey & Company recently put out an assessment of student learning outcomes during COVID-19 school closures. The results are bleak: Students of color are about three to five months behind in learning, while white students are one to three months behind.

 

Worsening educational inequities 

The sad reality is that virtual learning tends to favor wealthier, whiter families who have access to the types of resources needed to make this environment successful. Families of means have the resources to purchase whatever educational resources they deem necessary—from private-school tuition to individual tutors to new equipment to having one parent cut back their work hours in order to serve as a learning facilitator at home. 

 Low-income families don’t have these options. Many of them lack access to even basic reliable Internet or a desktop or laptop computer, not to mention a quiet place to learn and active parental involvement.

 

More options needed right now

A common refrain here at the Georgia Center for Opportunity when it comes to education is this: We can’t afford to wait another date to bring real options to Georgia students. The COVID-19 pandemic has only added to the urgency.

2020 has come and gone, and sadly it is too late to stem the tide of learning losses for our most vulnerable populations. But we can do new things in 2021 to help struggling students.

It begins by providing access to the widest range of educational options possible—to give immediate access to these options for all families regardless of income, zip code, or race. That option might look like a locally zoned public school, a charter school, a private school, or a home school. 

Some parents feel most comfortable keeping their children home in an exclusively virtual learning environment. Others want their kids back in school full-time. The need is for options, not top-down declarations or one-size-fits-all approaches. This means that schools must reopen for families who feel comfortable returning their children to in-classroom instruction.

If our goal is truly to achieve educational equity regardless of income or neighborhood, then expanded options are essential, now more than ever.

 

Story: Joyelle got an education, a job, and a promotion. She never expected her success would mean this

Story: Joyelle got an education, a job, and a promotion. She never expected her success would mean this

Story: Joyelle got an education, a job, and a promotion. She never expected her success would mean this. . .

Joyelle never expected to be a position where the very system she thought was a safety net ultimately failed her.

 

After fleeing an abusive relationship, this single mother of four ended up in public housing in Lawrenceville, Georgia. Until that point, Joyelle had never relied on welfare for help. She always paid her rent on time and made ends meet. So, falling back on public housing was an entirely new scenario for her. It was not where or how she wanted to live, or where she wanted her four children to grow up. 

That’s why she was determined to get back on her feet. She graduated from school and was offered a full-time job with the state of Georgia, a career trajectory that put her above the poverty line. Things were looking up. 

“I was excited and grateful,” Joyelle says. “I had worked hard: I started out with the state as a student assistant and worked my way up.”

 

Falling over the benefits cliff

But that’s when Joyelle got a shocking surprise: Due to her new salary, her subsidized housing allowance disappeared and she was forced to pay almost $1,000 a month in rent.

“I was heartbroken,” she says of learning that she was losing her housing subsidy. “You work hard. They tell you to go to school and get a job. You do all these things, and you’re still not able to provide for your family. That’s devastating. I suffer from anxiety. It causes stress. It causes severe depression.”

She now faces the difficult decision of looking to move but being unable to afford apartment rent even with her salary increase.

 

 

Hindering upward mobility

Joyelle encountered what we call the “benefit cliff,” where well-intentioned policies actually prevent people from getting off public services. They make just enough to not qualify for services, but not enough to make up for the services lost in extra income. The result is a system that keeps people trapped in poverty rather than one that propels them toward self-sufficiency and the dignity that comes with it.

“There’s no help for people like me, stuck in the wealth gap,” Joyelle shares. “You have help, but if you help yourself you’re faced with adversities that you shouldn’t be faced with.”

We believe that these services should move people into a prosperous life, not keep them stuck in cycles of dependency. Visit welfarecliff.org to learn more about ways to end benefits cliffs so that more Georgians can prosper.

 

Statement from GCO president Randy Hicks on 2020 election results

Statement from GCO president Randy Hicks on 2020 election results

Statement from GCO president Randy Hicks on 2020 election results

Election night is over and the results of the presidential race are still in question, with final calls in a number of key swing states hanging in the balance. Any other year, this would be an anomaly. But we’ve come to expect the unexpected in 2020, a year that has seen searing social strife, suffering, and pain through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unfortunately, the most rancorous election of our lifetimes will continue as election officials continue to tally votes across the states. But in the midst of a chaotic political season, devastating pandemic, and heartbreaking racial strife, I’m reminded of this simple truth that we live our lives by each and every day here at the Georgia Center for Opportunity: The role of government is important, but the most impactful changes occur in our homes, neighborhoods, and communities. It is there that lives are formed and, when things go badly, where lives are transformed. And it’s there that neighbors, businesses, communities of faith, schools, and non-profits can come together in local unified action.

Politics and policy do matter, but ultimately they are not the main driving force that moves the needle when it comes to people’s lives. That must come from you and me—rolling up sleeves and working alongside others who may or may not have voted like we did, but who share a belief that everyone deserves the opportunity to achieve a better life, regardless of their race, the circumstances of birth, or past mistakes.

In the end, no one needs to wait for election results or the government in order to have an impact at the community level. And no one needs to let election results keep them from doing good on behalf of others.

So, our mission continues, both at a policy level and community level. We remain thankful to live in the United States of America and to call Georgia our home.

Not for self, but for others.