Virtual victory? Hamilton County educators confident with connection to students during stay-at-home orders

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Chattanooga School for Arts and Sciences (CSAS) high school math teacher Bill Bowser looks through textbooks returned by students before adding them to stacks inside of CSAS's library on Wednesday, May 13, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. The official last day of school for Hamilton County had originally been set for May 21, but eventually the school board changed that date to May 15, after Governor Bill Lee recommended the change because of coronavirus in

Zoom meetings, YouTube videos, discussion board posts, paper packets of assignments - since schools across Tennessee closed in March amid the global coronavirus pandemic, many educators have tried to connect with students in myriad ways.

For some, it has been successful. But despite Hamilton County Schools' efforts to ensure students had technology and teachers had a game plan, many educators say academic engagement wasn't where they'd like it to be.

"I am really worried that we haven't fully engaged learning," Neelie Parker, chief of schools for the district, told the Times Free Press. "We are in the business of creating a literate society, and that is where we have to balance the personal side of the work with ensuring learning."

In many cases, access to broadband internet or Wi-Fi was the biggest barrier for student learning. Despite Chattanooga recently being recognized as a 2020 Digital Inclusion Trailblazer for the city's efforts to promote broadband services, Hamilton County Schools officials estimate that at least 1 in 4 students lack access to the internet at home.

Even though middle and high school students already had access to Chromebooks before schools closed - and the district gave out hundreds to elementary school students - some still had to sit in parking lots outside of schools or churches to get online.

On top of connectivity issues, educators said that many students' lives have been upended in the past two months as parents lost their jobs, homes were destroyed by the tornado that struck Chattanooga on Easter Sunday and students might have had to get their own jobs or take care of younger siblings at home.

As of Wednesday, district officials confidently said that fewer than 300 of Hamilton County's nearly 45,000 students have not been able to be reached or contacted by a school official during this last week of school - but Parker said educators have to consider not just making contact but also what type of learning is occurring.

Ruthie Panni, principal of DuPont Elementary, is the first to say that academic engagement wasn't where she wishes it had been. But DuPont teachers have been in contact with 100% of their students, something they track through their own Google form, she said.

"We know our contact percentages, we don't have any lost children. We are also looking at the amount of academic engagement, and it's not high. It's not as high as I have wanted it to be," Panni said. "But we know that we can't put our academic contact ahead of our close contact. I wish it was a higher percentage of students turning in work. ... A lot of students who check in might log on and listen to the lesson and just never turn in work. I wish I knew why."

Panni also noted that some of the harder-to-reach students might not check in to a teacher's Zoom meeting, but would log on for the third grade's weekly movie night on Thursdays or for mini-videos about mindfulness or meditation that fourth and fifth grade teachers hosted.

LeAndrea Ware, principal at The Howard School and Tennessee's reigning Principal of the Year, said a major challenge for high schools was the morale hit to seniors.

"We already struggle with our graduation rate because of some of the challenges that [Howard] historically faces," Ware said. "So one struggle specifically this year was that as proms and graduation and these events that seniors live 13 years to be able to experience were canceled, they got so down and depressed that to some extent, we had to ask 'how can we keep them motivated and inspired enough to get them crossing that 2020 graduation finish line?'"

At Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, a K-12 magnet school, principal Jim Boles estimates 90 to 100% of his students in the Upper School, grades 6-12, participated in virtual learning.

"I am super proud of what our district has done," Boles said.

Because of investments in one-to-one laptops and online textbooks as well as his teachers already using online learning tools, he said, arts and sciences students never missed a beat.

But keeping up the energy and the stamina as the closures stretched longer became one of the biggest challenges - for students and teachers, he said.

Chris Hendrix, who has taught at the magnet for 22 years, said the school's empty lockers and hallways on Wednesday "didn't feel right."

"We left on March 13, thinking we were coming back," he said.

Though the majority of his students still turned in work and logged online, Hendrix said online teaching doesn't match his teaching style. He also doesn't get to feed off his students' energy.

"In teaching my classes online, it's hard to have that interaction on a screen," Hendrix said. "We're storytellers."

Educators across the district had different methods for reaching kids.

At the arts and sciences magnet, the school tried to keep students on a shortened school-day schedule with classes meeting on certain days at specific times.

For Clifton Hills Elementary, a school that serves mostly low-income, minority students - especially English language learners - students stuck mostly to printed paper packets, and teachers were available online during set hours.

Erica Schmidt, an eighth grade math teacher at Sale Creek Middle/High School, gave her students her cellphone number and told them to call or text her at any time. She tried to work through math problems over Zoom or in Google Classroom, but sometimes she would just walk students through problems over the phone.

She even increased the number of Zoom meetings she held each week from two to four - not because of academic concerns, but out of worry about how her students were doing for such a long, tense period at home.

"My whole job shifted pretty quickly to the point where when I got on with them and contacted with our students. It was, how are you really, not just the math, but what do you need from me? Here's my cellphone, what do you need from me?" she said. "There were a lot that still tried to make [academics] a priority, but how do you still do that when the whole child is being affected?"

The effectiveness of virtual instruction is just one consideration for a task force formed by Superintendent Bryan Johnson to develop a plan to reopen schools in August, district officials said.

Johnson and others predict that the temporary move to virtual instruction this spring will have long-term effects on public education and educational options that the district offers to students in the future.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.