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Forsyth County Schools to give first look at plan for reopening schools in the fall

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Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden will present the system’s early plan for reopening schools in the fall to the Forsyth County Board of Education on Tuesday, June 2, during a special-called virtual meeting, according to school officials.

The plan, which is currently in draft form, is separate from guidelines being developed at the state level, but it would provide the first glimpse of what face-to-face instruction might look like for Forsyth County’s more than 50,000 students since schools were closed by the novel coronavirus pandemic in March.

“It’s very much a starting point,” said Jennifer Caracciolo, director of public information and communication with the school system. “It’s broad and we know there are different areas that we need to fill in.”

The school system’s final plan for the fall will likely have to account for the state’s guidelines. Last week, Gov. Brian Kemp and State School Superintendent Richard Woods formed six “K-12 Restart Working Groups” to chart a path for schools to safely reopen.

The groups’ 72 members include educators, public health officials and representatives of state agencies and nonprofits. They are responsible for distance and professional learning; school meals; mental health and wellness; connectivity and devices; supplemental learning; and facilities, transportation and equipment.

Those groups aren’t expected to complete their work until late June, at the earliest, meaning Forsyth County Schools isn’t likely to make a final decision on reopening until July.

During a Friday morning virtual meeting of the superintendent’s Parent & Community Advisory Committee, Bearden said he is “cautiously optimistic” that school can begin in August with “somewhat normal operations” and safety measures in place.

But he said school officials are also working on plans for several scenarios, including hybrid models and full-time virtual learning.

“I hope we don’t have to go to a hybrid (model),” Bearden said, “but I can’t tell you that we will not be directed that we have to go to a hybrid. It will depend on the data and how it’s trending as we get closer to school.”

Still, the school system has already stocked up on cleaning and protective supplies and implemented new safety measures and policies in preparation for students and staff returning to school in the fall.

According to Chief Facilities Officer Matt Wark, the school system is stocked with at least 18 months of cleaning supplies, like hand soap and sanitizer.

Custodial crews have been deep-cleaning school buildings since April. A new system notifies anyone in a school facility which rooms have been disinfected. And they’ve increased building inspections by an outside company. 

Michael Satterfield, director of transportation, said school buses will be cleaned and sanitized before and after every route.

School nurses will be supplied with N95 masks and other personal protective equipment, according to Debbie Smith, director of student support services. In addition, each school will get 10 no-touch thermometers to screen students.

Schools are also designating a “safe room” to isolate students that show symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, until their parents can pick them up.

The school system also plans to recommend students bring their own technology devices to school to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Bearden said he preferred students and teachers returning to school over a hybrid schedule or full-time virtual learning and he hopes the state will let the school system make its own decision on how to reopen in the fall. 

“I think individual communities have the best opportunity based on information on your community to make the best decision for our students,” Bearden said.

After Tuesday’s meeting, the draft of the reopening plan will be published on the school system’s website on Wednesday, June 3, for the public to read and offer feedback. That feedback will be added to input that the school system has been collecting from a survey sent to students, teachers and parents on March 18.

In that survey, the school system asked "What is your comfort level with students returning physically to school in August?" There were five answer choices: extremely comfortable; very comfortable; moderately comfortable; slightly comfortable; and not at all comfortable.

The survey is still open until Monday, June 1, but so far nearly 13,000 have filled it out. 

According to Caracciolo, over 60% say they feel comfortable returning to face-to-face instruction in the fall.

In a similar but smaller survey sent to members of the Parent & Community Advisory Committee, 69% said they were “comfortable or very comfortable” in children returning to school, while 11% were “very uncomfortable,” according to Bearden.

“I think we can agree that no matter what happens or what decision we make, we’re never going to get 100% consensus on the best plans for opening in August,” Bearden said. “... But I hope we can all agree that we must continue to work together to best serve our children.”