COVID concerns pair with budget constraints as schools brace for 2021

By: - January 11, 2021 4:59 am

COVID-19 and budget constraints could be challenges for building an equitable education system in Georgia, experts say. Getty Images

Two of Georgia’s largest school districts, Fulton and Cherokee County, are the latest in Georgia to temporarily move classes online as school resumes in 2021 and as COVID-19 cases continue to increase in communities across the state.

In Cherokee, where students returned from winter break Wednesday, more than 400 teachers, staff and substitute teachers were absent because of positive cases or quarantines by Friday, prompting Superintendent Brian Hightower to suspend in-person learning through Jan. 19.

“We understand this closing creates hardships, but it is a necessary measure which gives our students, families and employees the next 10 calendar days to get healthier,” Hightower wrote in a letter to families.

Fulton county schools will host virtual classes through Jan. 15.

Students in the two counties will join their peers from districts up and down the state in temporarily taking all their classes online, including Bibb, Dodge, Savannah-Chatham County and Dougherty, which have tentative return dates for in-person schooling between Jan. 19 and Jan. 25.

The epidemic has forced teachers, students and parents to adapt to unexpected changes, and even though the vaccine is starting to be distributed, it will not likely be given to children under 16 before the start of the next school year, said Marietta City Schools Superintendent Grant Rivera at the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education’s annual symposium Friday.

“As we look ahead to August 2021, we have to have conversations about, do we anticipate that 99.9% of the families will once again return to brick and mortar in-building learning in classrooms? The answer is no. We may have children who are all across the spectrum.”

The year 2021 will not be the year schools go back to normal in Georgia, and public education in the state has been dealing with budgetary woes for a long time, said Stephen Owens, senior policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

Schools in Georgia are funded through a formula called the Quality Basic Education Act that aims to help support schools with state money in counties with low property wealth. Since 2003, the state has fully funded that formula only twice, resulting in $10.2 billion less for public school students, Owens said. Last year, the state passed a budget that slashed education funding by nearly a billion dollars in anticipation of COVID-19’s effect on tax revenue.

School districts representing 250,000 students across the state are set to completely deplete their reserves this year, Owens said.

“So unless these budget cuts go away next year, these school districts are on a razor’s wire as they try to decide, how do we make up the shortfall moving forward,” he said. “And even still, we know that about half of school districts are going to reduce spending on professional development in a year when how we teach kids has changed significantly for a lot of school districts. That means less support for teachers on how to do this well.”

Education in Georgia was facing financial challenges before COVID-19.

Before the pandemic struck, the Southern Regional Education Board projected 1.5 million Georgians could be facing unemployment or underemployment by 2030. Since the outbreak, that has been revised up to 2 million Georgia workers, about 45% of the state’s workforce, at risk for unemployment or reduced hours by 2025.

“Considering it’s 2021, that’s a really short timeline and a really big crisis heading our way,” said Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education Vice President Dana Rickman. “So the education system, we believe, is really the key to economic recovery, long term recovery for Georgia and across the United States.”

People of color and those dealing with poverty are more likely to be harmed by an underfunded education system, Rickman said.

“The amount of suffering caused by poverty, disenfranchisement, racial and social and justice is simply staggering,” she said. “Education, an educated citizenry, that is the key to our long term solutions to these problems. The system needs to ensure that all people have access to an education that allows everybody to discern truth, engage in productive discourse and fully participate in the economy.”

Creating more equity among students of different backgrounds topped the partnership’s annual top ten list of priorities for 2021, but improving outcomes for all of Georgia’s students will be a challenge without the second item on the partnership’s top ten list, funding.

GPEE’s full top ten list and a summary are available on its website.

Some lawmakers have an appetite to undo some of last year’s deep cuts or raise teacher pay, but despite the fact that education makes up just under 40% of the state budget, it will be hard to find more money without raising fees or taxes or cutting tax breaks, Owens said.

“There’s been some bipartisan support for reviewing the very, very generous tax credits that we hand out, especially to businesses that aren’t located here in Georgia or aren’t employing a lot of Georgians,” Owens said. “And I think that the tobacco tax is just the lowest hanging fruit for a lot of a lot of senators and representatives on both sides of the aisle, so I think we’ll see some restoration, but I would be surprised if that happened this year.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.