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Birmingham Families Face an Unprecedented School Year

Angela Smith helps her granddaughter, Mariah Harvey, on the computer as grandfather Ronald looks on. (Marvin Gentry, For The Birmingham Times)
By Je’Don Holloway Talley and Sydney Melson
The Birmingham Times

Preparing for the first day of school—Tuesday, September 8—parents and guardians of Birmingham City Schools (BCS) students say decisions for this semester are more perplexing than ever before.

Consider Angela Smith, for instance, who has a third-grader at Hemphill Elementary School in West End. She has to decide how she can be in two places at the same time.

In addition to having a child in the school system, Smith is also the coordinator of hospitality and tourism at Wenonah High School, which means she has to find a way to be present for daily instructional periods at Wenonah and be available to help her 8-year-old granddaughter, Mariah Harvey, with schoolwork.

“Leading up to the fall, we’re in a dilemma because Mariah is going to be at home, and I’m expected to report to my building to work,” Smith said. “My husband, [Ronald Smith], and I are looking into what opportunities are available. I called the [YMCA], and they’re talking about offering child care, so we’re looking into costs and things of that nature.”

Last month, school administrators announced that the first nine weeks of the BCS 2020–2021 year will be done remotely in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Smith and her husband don’t have extended family who can watch Mariah while they work, “so we’re going to have to do some accommodating with either my work schedule or my husband’s, [he works a manufacturing job], to make sure Mariah has what she needs.”

The Smiths aren’t the only family making tough decisions and adjustments.

Lawreen and Lotoria King (seated), with their children, from left, Michael, Akeelah and Nickeles. (Marvin Gentry, For The Birmingham Times)

Lotoria King has a sophomore at A.H. Parker High School and eighth- and sixth-graders at Malachi Wilkerson Middle School. What differs this year for King is the family focus on technology and electronics, not supplies and clothing.

“I’m trying to make sure they all have laptop computers with webcams. I have internet [service] right now, but sometimes it goes in and out,” said King, as she prepares for her children’s virtual learning. “I just hope everything works out and the kids have what they need when [school starts on September 8].”

“[Administrators] said the school is going to provide [laptops], but I’ll already have three at home regardless, so we’re prepared,” King added.

Kimberly Callines, mother of 13-year-old Braxton Callines, an eighth-grader at Malachi Wilkerson Middle School, said this “new normal” is a bit frightening. Her biggest concern is keeping her son on task.

“Sometimes the kids are used to working in groups together. I think he’s up for the challenge, and I’m ready for the challenge, too,” said Callines, who works for BCS and said her job helps to maintain normal “school schedule” pacing for her son.

Kimberly Callines and son, Braxton

Callines is being optimistic about the first nine weeks to help Braxton overcome his nervousness.

“I’m approaching it with a positive attitude, trying to hype it up,” she said, adding that she has purchased a laptop to help Braxton prepare for online classes.

“We actually did a program this summer called Breakthrough,” organized by the Breakthrough Collaborative, a program that offers high-potential middle school students the opportunity to participate in academic enrichment activities throughout the summer and school year; this summer, they offered Zoom classes every day to help students prepare for school.

Callines said her son is looking forward to in-person classes, seeing his friends at school, and being part of the school’s first Information Technology team.

Esso Bodjona, mother of 14-year-old Steven Kampi, an eighth-grader at Wilkerson Middle School, said she doesn’t mind virtual learning. Bodjona, a hairdresser, said she can manage her schedule in the short-term.

“For now, I’m OK with him staying home,” Bodjona said, adding that her household is prepared for a virtual environment and Steven will have access to anything he needs at home.

Steven Kampi and mom, Esso Bodjona

Still, she and her son hope schools will go back to in-person classes soon.

“He misses school,” Bodjona said. “He wants to see his friends again.”

Steven also plays soccer and basketball, but the COVID-19 guidelines have put a stop to sports.

Another reason Bodjona and her son will be ready when schools eventually go back to in-person lessons: “He stays at home all the time,” she said, laughing. “He’ll go outside for a little bit, then come right back in.”

Click one of the links below to read more back to school stories. 

BCS Parent Tyrone Silmon on How Remote Learning Will Affect His 10 y.o.

10 Vital Back To School Tips From a Parent and Nurse Practitioner