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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Lakeside Academy student Emmett Loylass, 5, completes virtual learning coursework at home on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

On Friday afternoon, married mother of two Brandy Hewitt was on hand while her boys were attending class virtually inside their home near Bonny Oaks Drive. She says she is fortunate to be able to stay at home to help with her children's studies during the pandemic.

"The balance of trying to keep everyone on task as a parent, it can be quite trying at times; I can only imagine the teachers," Hewitt said.

Throughout the state, some parents are letting their children go inside school campuses for their education while others like Hewitt have opted for virtual instruction. This school year, Hamilton County Schools enrollment numbers total more than 42,000 students with about 15,000 who signed up for remote learning.

There is a partnership that is brewing this school year, aiming to help parents who have to leave home for work during school hours while their child is left behind learning at home.

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Education disrupted by COVID-19

 

A constant reminder

On Thursday around 7:40 a.m., fifth-year teacher Bria Sibley enters her second-grade classroom inside Woodmore Elementary in the Brainerd area.

Fifteen minutes later, Sibley hears the voices of her 15 students. The voices are not coming from them entering into the classroom heading to their seats, but from her computer screen.

"I don't think that any of us fully understood that March 13, 2020, was going to be the last traditional school day for months coming. In the spring we adjusted as quickly as possible and tried our best to connect with all students, but with the slam of a pandemic and tornado it was difficult to get all students connected daily," Sibley said. "Teaching during a pandemic has been historic, but my hope is that our students and parents will see the endless hours that teachers are putting into this school year and look back to realize that we are all in this together."

On the same day, about 10 miles northeast of Woodmore, inside the YMCA Healthy Living Center at North River, was 9-year-old Ta'mya York at a desk doing schoolwork on her laptop.

Through her mask, she recalled to the Times Free Press about school days before the pandemic caused campuses to shut down and go virtual.

"I miss playing with my friends at the playground," York said. "Doing school online is OK, but it's a lot with not having your teacher or friends around."

Tiffany Buchanan is a mom of an HCS at Home kindergartner. Her days start at 8:30 a.m. every weekday helping her son with class until 3 or 4 p.m., then later that afternoon she prepares to go to work as an overnight caregiver.

"Well our life at the moment as we enter into the second month of school some days are good and some days are overwhelming and frustrating," she told the Times Free Press on Friday, adding that sometimes she feels she has become a teacher herself as she does most of the teaching. "I love that technology has advanced so much. My son is now learning how to use a computer/tablet and learning how to move through different apps and links to get to his subjects."

Three options

During registration for the school year, parents were given three options:

* HCS Continuous Learning, which is an in-class option. Those students learn in class according to the phase the district is in or the need to close a school temporarily. Currently, schools are open five days a week. (27,040 enrolled)

* HCS at Home allows a child to learn virtually at home but still be connected with the local school. The learning is completely virtual. (14,250 enrolled)

* Hamilton County Virtual School is a stand-alone virtual school that operates like magnet schools in the district. Students are not connected to another school. (782 enrolled)

Source: Hamilton County Schools communication department

 

In this together

There are many Hamilton County parents like Buchanan who work full-time with a child learning virtually — like Dorthy Baker, a mom of 13-year-old twins who can't stay at home during school hours.

"It hits me the most when I get a call from one of the girls frustrated with technical issues," Baker said. "But we work through it."

There is help in the community for parents like Baker and even Buchanan: virtual learning centers or parent support centers.

A few organizations have partnered with the school district to turn their facilities to a HCS at Home/virtual learning support sites. One of the partners is the YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga.

During the summer months, the youth organization sites turned into summer learning centers throughout the Greater Chattanooga area — having employees on hand to help with the kid's studies. They also have offered day-care services to essential workers since March.

The effort has continued into the 2020-21 school year with turning the five sites into virtual learning centers, catering to HCS at Home and stand-alone virtual students.

The students are socially distanced inside a classroom with their district-provided Chromebook attending their virtual classes. There is staff to help the students with technical and learning issues.

The Y has enforced strict COVID-19 safety protocol at each site, including wearing masks at all times, daily temperature checks for both children and parents at drop off and cleaning regularly of all occupied spaces.

Bill Rush is the executive director of the J.A. Henry Community YMCA. On Thursday, he was at the North River location, where York was doing her studies.

He said the organization — along with other community partners who wished to have a virtual learning center — worked with the district's task force and administration to create its own three-phase plan, which ranges from wellness support (Phase 1) to having HCS at Home support site at their facility (Phase 3).

For the YMCA, the no-charge service is funded through the Federal Child Care Development Fund.

"Some of these families still have to work and, according to the school district, this is their top priority; so at the Y we will make it our top priority," Rush said.

According to Rush and HCS communications director Tim Hensley, the virtual center effort is just beginning with many churches and organizations following suit.

Hensley said an expansion of other support virtual centers will take place in the next few months.

For more information on essential daycare or the YMCA's virtual learning center, call Rush at 423-805-3348 or email brush@ymcachattanooga.org.

Contact Monique Brand at mbrand@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @MoBrandNews.

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