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Forsyth County Schools braces for first day of 2020-21 year
08122020 SCHOOLS
Forsyth Central High School seniors participate in “Dawg Days” on Monday, August 10, 2020. (Courtesy of Michelle Martin)

Lakeside Middle School’s theme for the 2020-21 school year was going to be “Be Kind,” but it needed an extra element after the Forsyth County school district decided to offer face-to-face instruction to start the year.

New principal Megan Thompson made Lakeside’s full theme clear early on in a video sent out to families about the school’s safety measures for reopening.

“Don’t forget to be kind,” Thompson said, “and wear your mask.”

On Thursday, students in the Forsyth County Schools district will return to school campuses for the first time since the novel coronavirus pandemic forced districts to shut down in-person instruction in mid-March.

Awaiting them will be a much different learning environment, with reminders everywhere in classrooms and hallways of the pandemic’s continued hold on society.

The pandemic’s impact will be clearest in those schools where significant portions of the student population will start the year learning remotely from home.

One-third of Forsyth County’s 51,352 public school students will learn virtually for at least the first nine weeks of the school year, according to Forsyth County Schools, including:

  • 7,528 out of 22,364 elementary school students, or 33.66%;
  • 10,447 out of 28,988 middle and high school students, or 36.04%.

Forsyth County Schools created a brand-new K-5 virtual learning program for elementary students in response to a demand from parents who wanted a remote learning option.

The school district promised that the new program would not resemble how students learned virtually at the end of last school year. District leaders designed the program to mirror a regular school day, with more video lessons, both live and recorded, and a regimented schedule.

“This is not going to be, ‘I can just hang out all day,’” Shiloh Point Elementary School principal Ben Jones said in a video to school families. “… This is virtual school. We’re expecting you to be there, to be engaged, to be there for the live lessons.”

Middle and high school students had the Forsyth Virtual Academy (FVA) available for learning remotely for at least the first semester, though the FVA did not offer all courses, requiring some students to spend at least part of their school day on campus.

For those students, and the more than 33,000 others returning to the classroom on the first day, school leaders released a barrage of informational videos through email and social media to explain new safety measures put in place as part of the school district’s “Restart Forsyth” reopening plan.

Across the county, staff described new policies like one-way hallway traffic, staggered dismissals at the end of the school day, and strict limits on visitors to campus.

At North Forsyth High School, students will use disposable hall passes that use QR codes to sign in and out for visits to the bathroom, front office, and school nurse. Lambert High School extended the time between classes to minimize large groups of students in hallways. Lakeside marked certain tables in the cafeteria with “no circles” where students cannot sit during lunch to keep them spaced apart.

Around the state, school districts wrestled with how to begin the school year during a summer in which the virus’s impact in Georgia ebbed and then intensified again. As the number of infections, hospitalizations and deaths increased in July, one by one school districts around Metro Atlanta changed course from plans for face-to-face instruction to completely virtual.

Forsyth County Schools pushed forward with offering families a choice between both. The school district surveyed the community and found a strong portion wanted their kids to learn virtually. Meanwhile, Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden said the school district needed to start with face-to-face instruction to best serve students who live in poverty, have a learning disability, experience neglect or abuse at home, or are homeless.

“Yes, we have to look at COVID-19 and the impact that that’s having on our community,” Bearden said during the “State of the Schools” event on Aug. 4. “We also have to look at the impact of our children not going to school. That’s why we gave families a choice.”

Increasingly, Forsyth County Schools has been the target of criticism for its policy to “expect” but not mandate students to wear a face mask. More than 140 teachers and staff members sent a letter asking for a mask mandate. One student’s letter to Bearden imploring him to mandate face masks caught the attention of Atlanta media.

The school district stuck with its policy to give students a choice. Bearden said schools will “positively promote” wearing face masks.

“My staff and I will model that expectation,” he said in early July.

And they were last week, in those videos posted to school Facebook accounts.

For Lambert, staff members ended each segment of the informational video by putting on a face mask embroidered with the school’s longhorn logo.

“We’re asking that you help not only keep yourself safe, but also keep all the other Longhorns safe,” Principal Gary Davison said. “This year, it’s important that we are Horns up, masks on.”