White woman teacher sanitizes her students hand while wearing a mask

Over the last two years, public schools have become the battlegrounds for politicized issues like pandemic protocols and parental rights in the classroom.

These issues were brought up Thursday at the 31st Georgia Bar, Media and Judiciary Conference, sponsored by the Georgia Bar Association, the Georgia First Amendment Association and other organizations.  

Much of the conversation among educators, journalists and lawyers focused on how the pandemic has impacted public education and led to the introduction of the parental bill of rights, backed by Gov. Brian Kemp.

Maureen Downey, a veteran education journalist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said the national discussion on parental control started with masks but quickly escalated “from books, to racial discussions, to even something as sort of accepted as diversity, equity and inclusion.”

The parental bill of rights legislation, already approved by the Georgia Senate and now pending in the House, says that parents have the right to control what public schools teach their children.  

But Jason Esteves, chair of the Board of Education for Atlanta city schools, said the proposed legislation would have limited impact on what actually happens in the classroom. 

Instead, the proposal would “just put up more paperwork, red tape processes for teachers and districts to have to go through, and at a time when teachers have already had to battle through COVID and those politics.”

 “I think we just need to leave school districts alone,” Esteves added.

Several panelists noted that school districts have had little federal guidance in dealing with COVID-19, so each school district ended up doing something different. 

School systems have also been hampered by staffing shortages due to resignations and illness.

“You can’t go back to school if you can’t staff school,” said Nicole Carr, a ProPublica reporter who has written about her personal experience with the Cobb County school system

“It doesn’t matter what we think about protocols, or where we stand on masking or anything else,” she said. “We actually need people to run the schools to go in-person, and so the pandemic made the decision for us.”

The pandemic also pushed school districts and teachers to adjust their teaching methods. 

Students have had a variety of experiences during the past two years, according to Timmy L. Foster, principal of Atlanta’s Parkside Elementary School. Some students had parents who helped them continue learning, while others didn’t learn anything until they returned to the classroom, Foster said.

“We’re spending a lot of time trying to fill that gap,” he added. 

Educators are now focusing on “personalized learning” because “kids are coming back in many different places as it relates to their learning,” Foster said. “You’re not going to be able to just sit and teach to a group of 25 students because they are all in all different places.”

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