The Forsyth County Board of Education voted Tuesday to approve a revised school calendar that pushes back the start of the 2020-21 year by a week but sticks with in-person learning despite concerns over a surge of coronavirus cases in Georgia.
At the July 21 regular meeting, the five-member board voted unanimously to adopt a revised school calendar that begins the year on Aug. 13, instead of Aug. 6, for both face-to-face and virtual instruction.
The board also adopted a revised staff calendar that avoids furloughs for teachers. The first day for staff will still be July 29, an extra five days for administrators and teachers to prepare the new online learning option for K-5 families concerned about the risks of kids returning to classrooms amid the pandemic.
Similar concerns caused the state’s largest school districts to change course in recent days and begin the school year completely virtual. Attention turned to Forsyth County Schools after Gwinnett County Schools decided Monday to begin with online learning, making FCS the largest remaining district in the state to offer face-to-face instruction.
FCS Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden reaffirmed the district’s plans to reopen schools Tuesday, citing a more mild increase in people getting infected by the virus in Forsyth County than neighboring areas.
"There's various opinions on how we should do things,” Bearden said, “but I want to say to our community that the recommendations I have made to date and the recommendations I will make going forward are solely based on data and the data of Forsyth County.”
Bearden also stood behind the school district’s “Restart Forsyth” guidelines for safely reopening schools. The board approved the plans during a special-called meeting on July 9. There are dozens of new protocols, like frequent hand-washing breaks, disinfecting buses after routes, minimizing outside visitors, and eating lunch in classrooms.
The board did not address the district’s policy that students will be “expected” to wear face masks in school but not required.
“To put children in an environment with this virus without mandating face masks I think presents a lot of risk, specifically around peer pressure and bullying,” said Brian Pounds, a parent of three FCS students, during Tuesday’s meeting.
William Rich, who also spoke during the meeting, has three kids, including one with special needs. As a cancer survivor and diabetic, he’s concerned about the safety risk of sending his kids back to school but feels online learning won’t work for them.
“I do think masks have to be mandated,” Rich said.
Heather Tatum said her two children don’t want to wear masks when school returns. A nurse, Tatum requested the school district institute a zero tolerance policy to prevent students from feeling singled out for their decision about whether to wear a face mask at school or not.
The school district’s policy prevents students from being disciplined or incentivized to wear a face mask in school.
“I do not agree with mandating masks,” Tatum said. “It is not an appropriate choice for every family and for every student.”
Parents had until July 14 to choose classroom or online education for grades K-5 for at least the first nine weeks of the school year. About 34% of the district’s 22,000 elementary students will learn virtually from home, Lee Anne Rice with the district office said during the meeting.
Schools are still refining the new program, Rice said, which the district has said will be more rigorous than what students experienced in the spring when schools were forced to close because of the coronavirus.
Staff and teachers are using feedback from students and parents to refine the program, which will require an additional 15 hours of training, Rice said. That would usually take 2-3 months, she said.
“By giving us these additional five days, we can make it happen,” Rice said.
In addition, teachers will work a regular 190-day school year without furloughs. The district had planned to save over $9 million through furloughs to help overcome a $23 million loss in state funding from the pandemic’s economic impact in Georgia.
Instead, Board members approved a final fiscal year 2021 budget Tuesday that pulled additional money from the district’s general fund balance to cover the shortfall.
“If you had asked me a month ago, I would have told you that was probably going to be impossible," Bearden said. "But things are working out better for us. We're doing better than we expected."
The district also tweaked the student calendar to maintain a regular 178-day school year. Students were scheduled to have off Oct. 23, Jan. 4, Jan. 5, Jan. 16, and March 12. Those will be regular school days now, while the last day of school is pushed back a day to May 27.