Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden explained his decision to close the district’s high schools to students for the remainder of the first semester to the Board of Education during its meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 16.
During the last week of school, the district reported that 165 students and staff had tested positive for COVID-19 and 4.9% had been directly exposed and forced into quarantine at home. Out of 41,296 face-to-face students and staff, that amounts to more than 2,000 individuals in quarantine.
Although the spike in cases played a role in Bearden’s decision to close the high schools, he said that they were mainly forced to close due to staffing issues. He said that on Friday last week, around 140 staff members were out of school due to COVID-19.
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“What I was hearing from our high school principals Friday night and Saturday morning was they did not feel like, starting this week, they could fully staff their schools,” Bearden said. “Finding substitute teachers in this day and age, dealing with COVID, is very challenging. There are folks who just do not want to substitute, and understandably so. And what we’re having to do is move staffing around throughout the building. Cover this class, cover that class. And it was just coming to the point where we felt like education and instruction was going to be compromised because it was just patchwork.”
The superintendent said he and the principals all agreed on Saturday to make the “very difficult decision” to close the high schools so that they could better serve students virtually.
Bearden also took the opportunity to remind community members at the meeting that he is a huge proponent of face-to-face learning, and he and the board are proud they have been able to offer the option of face-to-face, virtual or hybrid learning to parents and students this year. They plan to continue to offer these same options to parents going into the second semester.
While he explained that he does not plan to close any other schools between now and next semester, he said these decisions are made “day to day.” He is speaking with school principals daily to get a feel for what each school needs.
“Data will always drive our decisions,” Bearden said.
After seeing the effects of Lambert and Denmark High schools’ temporary closures earlier in the semester, however, Bearden said he believed that kids, especially high school students, are going out more and gathering in groups when they are out of school.
“They really were not quarantining,” Bearden said. “They were out and about in public, and so we realized from that decision we’re better served if we can keep our kids in school if at all possible.”
Bearden and some of the board members took the opportunity during the meeting to reiterate the importance of those in the community following COVID-19 guidelines and wearing masks whenever they cannot distance themselves from others.
“With the holidays coming up, we need to stay vigilant and stay focused on what we need to do as a community,” said Tom Cleveland, District 3 board member. “Even though we have vaccines coming and even though we have other things, it’s not free rein back to normal, and to start back next semester in good standing, we need those community numbers to stay down with everybody pitching in and doing the right thing.”
Bearden agreed with this sentiment, saying the spike in cases not only in the school district and in the state last week was likely caused by people going out, seeing family or travelling for Thanksgiving.
“Kids are going to be out for a couple of weeks [for the winter holidays,]” Bearden said. “What are we going to be dealing with when we come back in January? I think we can assume, unless people take proactive measures, we’re going to be dealing with a significant number of cases right out of the gate again.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states on its website that the safest way to celebrate the holidays this year is either virtually or with others that they live with. For more information on how to stay safe during the holidays or for ideas on safe ways to celebrate, visit the CDC’s website.
Otherwise, students and staff are both still encouraged to make sure they are wearing their face masks when they cannot remain six feet apart from others, washing their hands regularly, keeping their spaces clean and avoiding large gatherings.
Although high school students are learning virtually for the rest of the semester, school leaders are still asking that parents contact the school immediately when their student tests positive for COVID-19. FCS announced in a statement posted to its website that students who test positive after Dec. 25 should report the positive test to their school on Jan. 4-5.
For more COVID-19 updates within the district, visit the FCS website.