Superintendents reflect on a
full school year in a pandemic
2022 | FACTBOOK 109
By Thomas Hartwell
As seniors graduated in May and June of 2021 and after a full school
year, plus some, of educating during a global pandemic, the MDJ caught
up with Marietta Schools Superintendent Grant Rivera and Cobb Schools
Superintendent Chris Ragsdale to discuss what they learned, how they
were challenged and what in education may have changed for good.
Rivera: ‘We stood in the gap during a pandemic’
Rivera said in some respects it had been “the most inspiring year I’ve ever
had in education,” and in others a challenge both personally and operationally.
First, glass half full, he said: “I’ve seen people step up in ways that go far
beyond a job description or a job title — teachers serving food; counselors
supporting children; bus drivers making home visits, and the list is endless —
and I think in so many ways, this last year, I stood on the shoulders of giants
and felt so incredibly inspired and reminded of how much education is in fact,
the fabric of our community.”
But the superintendent said the pandemic
presented real challenges for ensuring every
student received the education they needed.
Educating students online, encouraging some
to stay connected while outside the school
buildings and ensuring those who didn’t have
reliable internet connection could access
their course materials, Rivera said, means
that as the year ends, “I’m exhausted.”
“I hadn’t taken a single day off from
March of 2019 until this past spring break
of April 2020. And I don’t think I realized
the toll that it took on my family — the toll
it took on me,” he told the MDJ, adding that
his own exhaustion was shared by teachers
and staff. “If our kids needed food, we got
food. If they needed Chromebooks, they got
Chromebooks, they get hotspots. If they needed
home delivery of a band instrument, if they
needed small group tutoring but we had to be outside for some — whatever it
took. We stood in the gap during a pandemic, so the children didn’t fall into
The summer, Rivera said, was used to reflect, recover and plan for the
future, because “we can’t do this again.”
The district can’t do it again, he said, because simultaneous virtual and in-person
education isn’t healthy for teachers, is too inconsistent for students and families and
divides students into two groups: those in the building and those who are not.
“And to me, what that meant was we had some schools where the majority of
the people weren’t even walking the hallways and that’s not the energy and the
love and the schools that we’ve all come to cherish,” he said. “It was a ghost town.”
Rivera said the district will also need to consider what the future of virtual
school options may look like. Marietta City Schools gave families a virtual option
for the 2021-22 school year, but offerings after that are in question for two reasons:
First, demand for online school continues to drop among Marietta families.
And second: “we’re seeing an alarming pattern that far too many students who
choose virtual are being unsuccessful.”
“I thought one of the major takeaways from this was going to be that more
and more families would want a K-12 virtual option,” he said. “But, while we
are willing to meet our families where they are, I think many more people
want the stability of what in-person learning offers.”
The greatest challenge personally, he said, was “seeing how much our staff
and our students and our families have hurt over the last year.”
“Families and staff, I think in their moments of greatest exhaustion, they’ve been
asked to run faster,” he said.
Rivera also said the district learned how virtual options for some school
matters could make more mundane tasks easier on schools and families.
“Why are you dragging families in for in-person meetings when we
could do a virtual meeting and people can join me at eight o’clock in their
pajamas? That’s a lesson learned,” he said. “But I don’t know that we could
pretend that the convenience of virtual meetings for families is equal to
the quality of virtual learning for children.”
And he said the pandemic has forced something that he hopes can continue,
albeit to a lesser degree: parent participation in their child’s education.
“How do we keep that element so families feel as connected next year
when their child’s in a classroom, as they did this past year when they
were sitting in the living room?” he said.
Ragsdale: ‘This was a year of firsts’
In many regards, Cobb’s superintendent echoed his Marietta counterpart.
Ragsdale touted the performance of teachers and other staff, who he said
worked nonstop to ensure students were engaged, fed and got to where they
needed to go. And, just like in Marietta,
Ragsdale said, while the district saw some
students thrive in a virtual setting, many
Like in Marietta, the district passed out
laptops to students who needed access to
one and distributed thousands of meals
and snacks at designated points for those
families who relied on them.
And like Rivera, Ragsdale cited the
district’s asking so much of its staff —
teachers often had to teach in-person and
virtual class simultaneously — as one of the
most difficult operational challenges.
The new school year’s virtual offering, he
said, was scheduled to see teachers leading
either in-person or virtual courses, not both.
Also challenging was the fact that in
May and June of 2020 — a time when the district
would normally be presenting its final budget
Marietta Superintendent Grant Rivera, left, and
Cobb Superintendent Chris Ragsdale
for the following fiscal year — district officials didn’t know what state and
federal funds would be available to them because state lawmakers were still
putting together their own budget, delayed by the pandemic. In response, both
the Cobb and Marietta school boards had to approve temporary spending
resolutions that OK’d set expenditures on a one-month basis.
“That’s the first time in my 29 years of education that I can remember
not having a state-provided budget by July 1 and having to do expenditure
resolutions,” Ragsdale said. “So unfortunately this was a year of firsts and not
necessarily positive firsts, but firsts that we had to deal with nonetheless.”
Ragsdale said the most prominent personal challenge for him was the fear
surrounding the COVID-19 virus.
He said even if people weren’t fearful for themselves, they often were for their
older family members or friends and relatives with pre-existing medical conditions
that could put them at risk for life-threatening complications from the virus.
Looking forward, Ragsdale said the pandemic has challenged people to
consider how large of a role technology will play in the future of education.
For example, he said, when conversations about having a 1-to-1 ratio of
school-provided personal computers to students first came up years ago, the
district couldn’t afford the $1,500-per-device price tag that came with it.
Knowing what educators know now and with some devices costing as little as
$500 each, “there’s a different opportunity” and one that deserves some exploring.
In terms of the catching up that some students may have to do after a year
of online learning that educators across the state have decried as not nearly as
effective as in-person schooling, Ragsdale said it’s hard to know how long it
may take to know where each student stands in their academic progress.