While the rest of the state’s largest school systems plan to start completely online amid the coronavirus pandemic, Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden is “proud” that the school system is offering parents a choice to have their students learn in-person or virtually to begin the upcoming school year.
Bearden told those in attendance at the annual “State of the Schools” event on Tuesday, Aug. 4, that the school system’s decision was based on information from parents and guardians collected from two surveys over the summer as well as data about COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH).
While Bearden said he receives daily updates from the DPH, he highlighted Forsyth County’s lower cumulative totals of cases and deaths since the pandemic began in March compared to bordering counties.
Bearden did not mention recent trends in Georgia and Forsyth County showing rising infections, the percentage of positive test results, hospitalizations, and deaths that concern public health experts.
But Bearden said he strongly considered all the ways schools serve students, a big takeaway from his trip to the White House earlier this summer. Bearden pointed to the number of Forsyth County students who live in poverty, have a learning disability, experience neglect or abuse at home, or are homeless.
The school system worked hard to serve those students in the spring when the pandemic forced schools to switch to full-time remote learning, but it was more challenging than when they are on campuses, he said.
“Yes, we have to look at COVID-19 and the impact that that’s having on our community,” Bearden said during a question and answer session. “We also have to look at the impact of our children not going to school. That’s why we gave families a choice.”
Any other year, the newest facilities under construction or the school system’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Plan would have been noteworthy enough at Tuesday’s event hosted by the Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce.
Three campuses are opening in the next year, with Poole’s Mill Elementary School opening in a few weeks and Hendrix Middle School and East Forsyth High School set to open in 2021, as Forsyth County Schools keeps pace with the county’s continued growth. The school system is on track to pass Atlanta Public Schools soon as the sixth-largest school system in Georgia, according to projections.
Work also continues on the FOCAL Center, the school system’s new performing arts facility, and Academy for Creative Education, which will be the new home for the system’s alternative learning programs Gateway Academy, Forsyth Academy and Forsyth Virtual Academy.
The county’s growth is also increasing diversity among the school system’s more than 50,000 students, particularly those who identify as Asian. Forsyth County Schools plans to hire a diversity specialist at the district level as part of its DEI plan, as well as provide inclusion training for staff, improve curriculum and resources in school media centers, and expand racial and ethnic awareness and education.
But the Q&A-portion of the event was dominated by the pandemic. Pre-selected questions raised concerns about how the school system will respond to positive cases, teacher safety, the pandemic’s impact on the school budget, and sports and other extracurricular activities.
Bearden and Forsyth County Board of Education Chair Nancy Roche echoed previous statements about the school system’s “Restart Forsyth” plan for reopening that lay out guidelines for local schools. Principals are implementing dozens of new measures meant to mitigate the spread of the virus and tailoring them to fit their campus, Bearden said.
Even so, the plans won’t completely eliminate the chance of students and staff being exposed to the virus, Bearden said, even with one-third of elementary school students starting the year learning remotely through the school system’s new K-5 virtual program.
“That’s not doable,” he said.
Bearden and Roche encouraged parents to reach out to their child’s principal to see how they are implementing the school system’s reopening plan.
“Everyone has to be patient and not be afraid to work with us,” Roche said. “I think we can do this together. Have faith.”