Monroe County Schools sent an announcement on Tuesday, March 24 that schools will be closed through April 3 and that the schools will observe the scheduled Spring Break the following week through April 10. The first day schools might re-open would be Monday, April 13.

Alternative Learning Days, that is, all on-line and off-site instruction, will be discontinued during the Spring Break week. The Grab ’n Go meal program for students will also be suspended during Spring Break week. 

All Georgia High School Association and Monroe County Middle School athletic activities are cancelled through April 6, and all field trips, competitions and club activities are cancelled through April 3. Monroe County School System says it will provide updated information as soon as it is available.

 Superintendent Dr. Mike Hickman said the schools are doing all right so far in maintaining classes and learning for its 4,180 students. The school system instituted a plan for alternative learning days this year and was able to quickly put the plan in place. Having all classes away from the brick and mortar classrooms is unprecedented, but Monroe 

County had a basic platform ready.

The original plan for alternative learning days was meant to answer a need during a snowstorm, hurricane or utility outage and was supposed to be for up to three dates. It has provided a structure, and Hickman said teachers and students have been very creative and flexible to make it work during this unexpected school closure.

“We have parents, teachers and kids committed to learning. It’s heartwarming,” said Hickman. “We’ve had more people trying new things. We’ve had zoom classes on Google with little faces on the screen. Ten years ago this wouldn’t have been possible.”

Hickman said teachers and staff have been sharing with one another and passing along ideas for alternative learning every day. He said about 80 percent of Monroe County students have access to Internet and can get their assignments and return them online. However there are 20 to 25 percent of local students who don’t have access to Internet and must find other ways to participate in alternative learning and keep up with their classes. 

Asked whether learning outside of the classroom is more difficult for younger students or older students, Hickman said it is more challenging for the school system to serve high school students because whereas each grade level in the lower grades has one curriculum, there are more than 200 different classes offered at Mary Persons. 

“It’s not feasible to have work packets for so many classes,” said Hickman. “I applaud the high school for how it has reached out to anyone who has issues [with alternative learning.]

He said classes like construction, chorus and band have found ways to continue the learning outside of the classroom. He said the elementary school P.E. teachers have made videos of themselves leading exercises and students have sent back videos of themselves doing the exercises. They have set up charts where students can log on and show their daily physical activities. 

“Some classes are more challenging [for alternative learning] than others. It’s forced our teachers to think outside the box,” said Hickman.

He said the school system is planning a transition period before all students come back to regular classrooms when students who had difficulties getting assignments can work with teachers to catch up. 

Hickman said Monroe County Schools are trying to keep all of its over 620 employees busy during the shutdown. Bus drivers were asked to wash and sanitize their buses and make sure they are ready to go. They have completed professional development activities in small groups. All employees are primarily working from a distance now. The superintendent’s meetings with school principals are even held via Internet. Custodial and grounds crew workers are doing their jobs alone or in small groups. 

Nutrition services is preparing and distributing meals for students two days per week. The first week it distributed 768 meals to 192 students and expects more as the word spreads. Meals are distributed from the bus loading ramp at Hubbard Elementary School. This week they were given out from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. on Monday and Wednesday. According to U.S.D. A. guidelines, meals must be given to students. Adults can’t pick up the meals unless they have children with them. 

Hickman said Monroe County decided against delivering meals by bus because at some stops, like Forsyth Gardens Apartments, there are as many as 64 children. It would violate prohibitions against large gatherings if all the families came out to get their meals. 

The Backpack Buddies program, which isn’t subsidized by the school system or USDA, is delivering food to homes and neighborhoods. Backpack Buddies normally provides food over weekends and school holidays to students who get free meals at school. It functions with donations and volunteers. 

“We’ll find a way to get them served,” said Hickman.

He and Monroe County Schools now face decisions about whether to cancel annual events like prom and graduation. Hickman said he is waiting on information from the state, Some direction from the state will come by March 31 since the state mandated school closures until then.

“A lot of things are up in the air. [State-wide organizations] have cancelled a lot of training through April,” said Hickman. “I hate it, but we’ll do something special when we can. We’re excited about trying new things [to make alternative learning work], but we miss the relationships.”