May 18, 2020 11:36 AM

Some US schools are pulling the plug on distance learning

Posted May 18, 2020 11:36 AM

By JEFF AMY-Associated Press

CUSSETA, Ga. (AP) - After the Chattahoochee County school district called an early end to the school year, seniors lined up one day last week to complete their graduation paperwork. Students who hadn't seen each other since in-person classes ended abruptly in March amid the coronavirus outbreak commiserated over all they've missed out on, including the prom and a senior class trip.

Some also wondered about what they may have lost academically.

"Honestly, remote learning, I don't think was my favorite thing," said 18-year-old Isabella Branson. "It's kind of hard to stay motivated when you don't have anything to look forward to and you don't see your friends."

The small district in rural Georgia is among many around the U.S. that have pulled the plug on distance learning, all citing familiar reasons. It's too stressful, the lack of devices and internet access is too much to overcome, and what students get from it just isn't worth the struggle.

In Georgia, where the school year is ending early for one of every 10 students, many district leaders say the final weeks of the school year would have been dedicated anyway to preparing for and taking standardized tests that are now canceled. The governor and state schools superintendent who have moved to dismantle parts of Georgia's high-stakes testing system have said they are not opposed to fewer instructional days.

"We didn't cut any class time out," Chattahoochee County High School Principal Josh Kemp said. "There was no reason to pile more on our parents and students."

But Kemp and others also acknowledge that there was material that wasn't covered and that teachers will have to find a way to fold it in next year for returning students.

"They weren't able to get all the standards," said Tammy Bailey, the science department chair at the high school. "I think there will be a gap."

Classes had been scheduled to run through May 21 but remote instruction instead came to an end May 8 in the Chattahoochee County school district. A majority of the high school's 450 students live on the U.S. Army's sprawling Fort Benning, while a minority live around the small town of Cusseta. Only 59% of households in the district have access to broadband internet at home.

Other districts around the country that are ending the school year early including Omaha and some nearby suburban districts in Nebraska, Washington, D.C., and some in New Hampshire. Officials say they want to relieve stress on families, ease problems for students without internet access, and focus on preparing for a fresh start in the fall.

The last three weeks of school is "probably not prime instructional time," said Andrew McEachin, an education policy researcher at RAND Corp. But he said that kids in struggling households may suffer most from being cut off from the normalcy of a school routine.

"I think the biggest thing about cutting a school year short is not what it does on average, but what it does on equity," McEachin said. "Even if school isn't working as well as we want it to be, that may be the best access low income students have to learning."

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, said on April 16 that he trusted schools to set their calendars and the following day, state Superintendent Richard Woods wrote that schools' focus during the pandemic should "not be on test scores" but on making sure children are "healthy, safe and nurtured."

But Michael O'Sullivan, executive director of GeorgiaCAN, a group that supports Georgia's testing system, says this spring has been a preview of a "zero-accountability world."

"It's the easy way out of a very difficult situation, but that doesn't mean it's going to be good for kids," O'Sullivan said.

Some schools in Georgia are making plans to combat academic losses from the year, such as beefed-up summer sessions. The Scintilla Charter Academy in Valdosta is aiming to start the next school year on July 23, to make up the time it lost when it ended on April 30.

Scintilla Dean of School Mandy Avera said her families were "stressed and overwhelmed" by online learning. The school covers kindergarten through sixth grade, and Avera is among educators who question whether younger children can successfully acquire critical skills like learning to read without a face-to-face interaction with a teacher.

"It just created a situation where we just can't be as interactive as we like to be at Scintilla," Avera said. "Kindergartners don't understand why they're at home. They don't understand why they can't go back to school and see their friends and see their teachers."

Back in Cusseta, some seniors were stressing about being able to bring only four guests to a socially-distant graduation ceremony, while others were disregarding imposed distance to hug and gossip. But Chattahoochee County Superintendent Kristi Brooks was already trying to think about the next school year, despite uncertainty on whether in-person classes will resume.

"They're going to have missed 60 days of instruction," Brooks said "When we come back for the fall, we're going to have to pick up in some basic areas."

Continue Reading Panhandle Post
May 18, 2020 11:36 AM
Virus unleashes wave of fraud in US amid fear and scarcity
Counterfeit COVID-19 test kits-photo courtesy U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

WASHINGTON (AP) — A 39-year-old former investment manager in Georgia was already facing federal charges that he robbed hundreds of retirees of their savings in a Ponzi scheme when the rapid spread of COVID-19 presented an opportunity.

Christopher A. Parris started pitching himself as a broker of surgical masks amid the nationwide scramble for protective equipment in the first desperate weeks of the outbreak, federal authorities said. He was soon taking in millions of dollars.

Except there were no masks.

Law enforcement officials say Parris is part of what they are calling a wave of fraud tied to the outbreak.

Homeland Security Investigations, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, is leading a nationwide crackdown. It has opened over 370 cases and so far arrested 11 people, as part of “Operation Stolen Promise,” according to Matthew Albence, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“It’s incredibly rampant and it’s growing by the day,” Albence said. “We’re just scratching the surface of this criminal activity. ”

From a fake #COVID19 test kit photo courtesy U.S. Customs and Border Patrol

Parris was on pretrial release for the alleged Ponzi scheme when he was arrested last month in what authorities say was an attempt to secure an order for more than $750 million from the Department of Veterans Affairs for 125 million face masks and other equipment.

“He was trying to sell something he didn’t even have,” said Jere T. Miles, the special agent in charge of the New Orleans office of Homeland Security Investigations, which worked the case with the VA Office of Inspector General. “That’s just outright, blatant fraud.”

Parris has not yet entered a plea to fraud charges and his lawyers did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

Nationwide, investigators have turned up more than false purveyors of PPE. They have uncovered an array of counterfeit or adulterated products, from COVID-19 tests kits and treatments to masks and cleaning products.

Steve Francis, director of the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, which is overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says authorities have tracked counterfeits flowing into the U.S. from 20 countries and for sale through thousands of websites.

“There are people popping up who have never been in the business of securing equipment on a large scale,” Francis said.

Enter Parris.

From his home outside Atlanta, he claimed to represent a company with 3M respiratory masks and other protective equipment for sale. At the time, there was a mad scramble for supplies that pitted state and local governments against each other.

As outlined in court documents and interviews, his pitch reached a company in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that was trying to help government agencies acquire PPE. In late March, it contacted the VA, which was dealing with a critical shortage of protective equipment.

The VA was suspicious of the price, about 15 times what it was paying amid the shortage, and alerted its inspector general, which brought in Homeland Security. That resulted in a sting that led to Parris.

“He had no means of producing any PPE,” Albence said. “It was just a scam.”

Coronavirus test kits that were not FDA approved-photo U.S. courtesy Customs and Border patrol

But it had some takers. Federal authorities say a Parris-controlled bank account received more than $7.4 million, with most appearing to come from unidentified entities trying to buy safety gear in March and April, according to court documents. He wired some of the money to accounts overseas, including more than $1.1 million to a Swiss company’s bank that authorities say may be a shell corporation.

The U.S. government seized more than $3.2 million from his accounts.

The Ponzi scheme was unrelated to the alleged attempt to defraud the VA but “is sufficiently similar to the conduct in this case that it is relevant to his plan, intent, and modus operandi,” according to a search warrant affidavit.

In the earlier case, Parris and his partners are accused of defrauding about 1,000 people out of at least $115 million from January 2012 to June 2018. They persuaded the victims to turn over their savings for what turned out to be nonexistent investments, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Another member of the partnership, Perry Santillo, pleaded guilty to fraud in November.

As part of the alleged scheme, Parris and the others bought the businesses of investment advisers who were retiring and leveraged the trust those advisers had built up over the years to pitch the bogus investments, with relatively modest returns, to their newly acquired clients.

Florida attorney Scott Silver, who represented some investors who sought to get their money back after the SEC shut down the operation, said there was little to recover because Parris and the others spent most of it.

He wasn’t surprised that Parris had been arrested in the COVID fraud case. “He’s already facing 20 years in prison,” he said. “What’s he worried about?”

Parris, who was charged in the case in January, grew up in Rochester, New York, and worked as an insurance agent, owned a dry cleaner and got involved in local politics. He ran unsuccessfully for city council and said he was vice president of a local African American Republican committee.

“So many people that know me, you know, trust me,” Parris said in a 2015 hearing with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which later suspended his broker license.

One of Parris’ alleged victims in the Ponzi scheme, Jane Naylon, said she took guitar lessons from Parris’ father, a reverend at a local church and lost $150,000 in the fraud.

Naylon was dismayed when Parris was released on his own recognizance in the Ponzi scheme. When she learned he had been charged for PPE fraud, she said she was in shock, but also pleased.

“I’m ecstatic,” she said. “I hope he goes to jail for life.”

Parris is now jailed in Atlanta and is expected to be transferred to Washington to face charges in the VA case.