Albany, Dougherty County, Georgia, located in the Southwest region of the state, is home to 90,000 citizens. Despite its population, per capita, the city has been profoundly affected by the coronavirus. The county has the highest number of incidents statewide. As a result, citizens have been told to shelter in place. The disruption of life as we know it has been absolute.
The education sector accounts for many jobs in the region and school closures nearly touch everyone. Albany State University has an enrollment of 6,001with 2,844 employees. Dougherty County has a total of 13 schools with 14,549 students enrolled in the public school system and over 1,000 employees. Albany Technical College has an enrollment of 3,640 students with 142 employees. Turner Job Corps Center serves 732 students and 300 employees.
All University System of Georgia schools, including Albany State University, have been closed and a number of employees are currently working under telecommute agreements. Classes, which began March 30th, have been placed online for the remaining of the semester. Faculty and staff members are not to return to campus until further notice. Students were given dates to remove their personal belongings from all dormitories.
While school officials from K-12 and higher education have painstakingly sought ways to assist students, parents and employees as they move from face-to-face instruction to a digital modality, sending home packets of work and troubleshooting distance learning and telework plans, one can only imagine the long-lasting effect on students and families who were already in survival mode before this crisis.
Many students do not have computers in their homes. In rural counties, access to broadband internet is limited. The Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative has worked to identify areas without broadband to assist with broadband planning efforts, mapping by county households and businesses served and unserved.
“With Georgia’s schools closed through April 24, students who lack internet access are at risk of falling behind,” said Dr. Caitlin Dooley, Georgia Department of Education Deputy Superintendent of Teaching and Learning in a recent Georgia Public Broadcasting interview. “One of the biggest challenges coming to light during the pandemic is the internet connectivity barriers facing rural areas of the state. Internet connectivity for Georgia’s students and teachers is more important than ever.”
Given the reliance most families place on public education to teach their children, many of them feel overwhelmed and challenged to teach their children at home, even with technology tools at their disposal. Clearly, children who were already experiencing an educational achievement gap will be even more impacted by the loss of classroom instruction time and the “homework gap” created by distance learning.
Beyond instruction, school rooms are an essential part of the safety net for many poor children who receive free and reduced lunch and other social benefits. In Dougherty County, 60 percent of all students receive free lunch and 9 percent of Dougherty County SchoolSystem pay $.40 per day for lunch. School closures affect fragile families more than any of us could ever know.
While the government decides what types of financial aid each American receives, now is the time that we must all pull together, even while practicing “social distance,” to aid our neighbors who may be in need. Albany, Dougherty County has experienced crises before, during the devastation of Hurricane Michael and the 100-year flood of 1994, both of which have left indelible marks. Like then, this is our collective battle to wage and win.