Georgia schools continue to face new challenges posed by the pandemic, while dealing with issues that are not new but have been exacerbated by COVID-19, such as teacher burnout and low retention rates.

State Superintendent Richard Woods addressed both concerns Thursday when speaking to gifted coordinators and school staff across the state on day two of the Georgia Gifted Coordinator’s Consortium Winter Workshop, which was held at the King & Prince Resort on St. Simons Island.

“Thanks to your hard work, Georgia has really landed in the right place,” Woods said. “We continue to be well placed. I’m very grateful to be the superintendent of public schools in Georgia and not some of these other states, to be honest.

Since the start of the pandemic, the state’s graduation rate has dropped about a tenth of a percent, he said, hovering around 84 percent.

“Our AP and SAT scores actually beat the nation. Even in times of pandemic, we kind of reached the top,” Woods said. “We know that education and learning continue to happen. The milestones went down somewhat this year, but it wasn’t something that was a critical drop.

Year-end Milestones test scores were down about 6% statewide last year.

Woods highlighted other developments in education in Georgia that he says are exciting, including the rollout of new math standards, the use of a new testing curriculum, the expansion of STEM and STEAM certification, and the growth of foreign language teaching options.

“Really, we’re looking to expand opportunities for our young people, whether it’s in-state, out-of-state, or somewhere in the world,” he said. “We want to make sure that all of our children have the opportunity to succeed and to be truly capable of pursuing whatever they want.”

A particularly critical issue across the state is teacher retention. Georgia is losing one in two educators entering the profession, Woods said, while many more reach retirement age.

The State Department is looking closely at this concern and plans to have organized conversations around the issue of teacher burnout, he said.

“Honestly, it’s been a tough two years,” Woods said. “We’re trying to hear what we can do, what are the things we can sponsor that will help attract, keep and retain teachers?”

He also asked conference attendees to let his office know what can be done to support their work with the state’s gifted students.

“I want to hear so we can make a difference and improve your access to your children and give you that time and give you the tools and resources you need to make a difference in their lives,” Woods said.

The state Department of Education also recently added a new team of staff members focused on education in rural areas of the state. The team is led by Bronwyn Ragan-Martin, the new deputy superintendent for rural education and innovation, who also spoke at the workshop on Thursday.

“How many of you feel like there are two Georgias?” she asked. “There’s Atlanta, and there’s it everywhere else, right?”

His new position was created with federal COVID-19 relief funding that came to the state Department of Education. South Georgia’s rural districts face different challenges than the northern part of the state, and the new office will aim to address those issues and serve as a liaison with the Atlanta-based state office.

Families in North Georgia face more instances of situational poverty, caused by life challenges like job loss, while in South Georgia, more live in generational poverty passed down through the ages. decades, Ragan-Martin said.

His office’s priorities include expanding home Internet access in rural areas and improving teacher retention in rural areas of the state.