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Forsyth County Schools approve final reopening guidelines without face mask mandate
07092020 Restart Forsyth vote
Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden speaks during a special called meeting of the Forsyth County Board of Education on Thursday, July 9, 2020. (Screengrab)

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Forsyth County public school students and staff will be “expected” but not required to wear face coverings at school under the district’s final guidelines for returning to in-person instruction for the 2020-21 school year.

The Forsyth County Board of Education voted 5-0 Thursday, July 9, during a special called meeting to approve the guidelines, called “Restart Forsyth.”

Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden said the benefits of wearing a face covering in public when social distancing is not possible “has been very well articulated and documented in the medical community.”

But Bearden said he is “opposed” to requiring them in schools after hearing from parents who say their kids can’t wear a face covering for long periods of time because of health issues and feel the school district’s remote learning option isn’t a good fit for their family. 

Staff members have expressed similar concerns about wearing face coverings, too, Bearden said.

“I’m going to accept our parents and staff members at their word,” Bearden said.

Read the full "Restart Forsyth" plan
Read the FAQ section of Forsyth County Schools's "Restart Forsyth" reopening plan

Students will be “expected” to wear a face covering “whenever feasible,” according to the final guidelines, but they will not face discipline for not wearing a face covering or be incentivized to wear one, Bearden said. 

Instead, schools will “positively promote” wearing a face covering.

“My staff and I will model that expectation,” Bearden said.

The plan does require bus drivers and food service staff to wear a face covering around students if they cannot social distance. Visitors at schools will also be required to wear a face covering, though the guidelines call for limiting outside visits.

How schools will social distance students will be up to the system’s nearly 40 principals. Each administration is developing plans for how students can safely move about to suit their individual campus. The plans have to align with the school system’s guidelines.

Bearden encouraged parents to contact their child’s principal for details on their plans.

“I need the Mashburn administration to create a plan that works for Mashburn. I need the Lambert administration to create a plan that works for Lambert,” Bearden said.

The board’s decision comes as the number of cases and hospitalizations caused by the virus have spiked in Georgia. The state’s Department of Public Health reported over 2,800 new cases and 100 hospitalizations on Thursday.

The virus has started to spike in Forsyth County, too, though less so: 15 new cases and two hospitalizations were documented locally Thursday, bringing Forsyth’s totals to 1,057 and 114, respectively.

Should a student or staff member test positive for COVID-19, the school system will defer to the DPH on how to respond, Bearden said. That could result in a variety of outcomes, he said, from closing individual classrooms or hallways to the entire school system.

“We will follow whatever guidelines they give us,” Bearden said. 

The rest of the school district’s reopening plan lays out dozens of new safety measures to curb the spread of the virus, including frequent hand-washing breaks, enhanced cleaning throughout schools, disinfecting buses between routes, and eating lunch in classrooms. 

Desks will be reconfigured to have students sitting in the same direction, and students will be discouraged from sharing technology devices and other school supplies. Groups will be limited during recess to ensure social distancing.

Fewer “nonessential” visitors will be allowed in school buildings, and most events will be held virtually, including parent-teacher conferences.

Other guidance for individual departments is still being finalized to comply with the new plan.

“The staff is bending over backwards to try to provide customer service to every single child in our school system,” Bearden said. 

The Board’s decision Thursday cleared one of the school system’s major hurdles this month in preparing for the first day of school on Aug. 6.

The school system is hosting its final town hall for families interested in the school system’s new K-5 virtual learning program on Friday, July 10, at 12 p.m. Bearden said they expect around 2,500 students to enroll in the program before the July 14 deadline. 

Students in grades 6-12 have until July 31 to enroll in the Forsyth Virtual Academy.

By then, the Board will have adopted a new budget that accounts for the loss of state funding due to the economic impact of the pandemic and an amended school calendar with furlough days for staff.

A tentative budget will be presented during a special-called meeting Tuesday, July 14, at 9:30 a.m., with a public hearing beforehand at 8:30 a.m. 

The Board is scheduled to vote on a final budget and school calendar during its July 21 regular meeting.