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By Beau Evans
Georgia school officials released guidelines Monday on how to reopen the state’s public schools for the 2020-2021 school year amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The guideline document, called “Georgia’s Path to Recovery for K-12 Schools,” outlines steps local schools should take to prevent the highly infectious virus from entering classroom environments and to curb its spread if an outbreak occurs.
Georgia’s school districts halted in-person classes in more than 2,200 schools starting in late March as concerns ramped up over coronavirus. The state’s roughly 1.7 million students were left to finish the remainder of their spring-semester coursework via online means.
In recent weeks, Gov. Brian Kemp has moved to reopen sectors of the state’s economy and social activities, including summer school classes that can be held starting this month. Summer schools would have to keep students separated in classrooms and routinely sanitize facilities.
The 10-page guideline document released Monday leaves it to school districts whether to close school buildings in the event the virus spreads. It also calls for districts to participate in contact tracing with state health officials, place educational signs on good hygiene in school buildings and decide how to handle students and teachers who show symptoms of the virus.
Additionally, the guidelines note ways for school districts to shift to online learning in the event of an outbreak, as well as to take a “hybrid” approach allowing districts to blend in-person and online learning. If the virus spreads at a “moderate” level, the guidelines advise schools to screen students and staff before they enter buildings and to require students to keep space between each other in cafeterias, classrooms and hallways.
“In partnership with the Georgia Department of Public Health, we created these guidelines to give school districts a blueprint for safe reopening that is realistic in the K-12 setting,” State School Superintendent Richard Woods wrote in the document. “We have a responsibility to keep out students, teachers, school staff and families safe and to provide the best possible education for our children.”
The guidelines will likely not be the last word on how Georgia should resume classes for the 2020-2021 school year. Last month, Kemp and Woods formed six working groups of educators, public health officials and state agency representatives to lead the school reopening effort.
Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden will present the system’s own 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.
(To attend virtually, visit the school district's website.)
The plan, which is currently in draft form, is separate from the state's guidelines, 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.
During a May 29 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.
“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.”
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 closes today.
Nearly 13,000 respondents had filled it out as of Friday. 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.”
Brian Paglia contributed information to this report.