One-third of students at Forsyth County public elementary schools will start the 2020-21 school year learning online from home.
According to data released by Forsyth County Schools, 7,528 of the school district’s 22,364 projected elementary students, or 33.66%, enrolled in the district’s new virtual learning program for kindergarten through fifth-grade.
But the percentage of students learning virtually varies wildly from school to school, and largely along geographic lines, according to a Forsyth County News analysis, leaving an uneven burden on schools to keep students and staff safe as the coronavirus pandemic continues
The vast majority of students enrolled in the school district’s new K-5 online learning program are in the county’s southern area, where some schools will see the number of students in their building drop by more than half. The opposite is true for schools north of Canton Highway.
School leaders say the disparity is a successful demonstration of the district’s plan to continue offering families an option — instruction in person or online — even as the rest of the largest school districts in Metro Atlanta have decided in recent weeks to scrap plans for reopening as the number of infections and hospitalizations from the virus surges in Georgia.
“You’ve got families in our district that come from a variety of areas,” said Lee Anne Rice, a former principal at Settles Bridge and Cumming elementary schools who is now interim associate superintendent of teaching and learning with the district office.
“Many are multi-generational homes where grandparents, parents, children all live together. Some families, both parents work. Some families, only one parent’s in the home. Some families, family members are in the high-risk category.”
“And so I think when you take all the different things into consideration, with Forsyth County Schools allowing all different options, that does allow families to think about very unique situations and what works best for them.”
How we got here
In March, Forsyth County Schools switched to virtual instruction after Gov. Brian Kemp ordered schools to close to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Two months later, soon after the school year ended, the district sent out a survey to parents, students, and staff. The last question asked, pointedly, “What is your comfort level with students returning physically to school in August?”
Out of a range of responses, about 39% of 4,756 respondents said they were “slightly comfortable” to “not at all comfortable.”
After the school district released its guidelines for reopening on June 2, it sent out another survey to gauge the community’s reaction.
The results weren’t positive. Almost 5,600 parents of elementary school children responded, and nearly 58% said they were “slightly comfortable” to “not at all comfortable.”
On June 18, the school district announced it would offer online learning options for all students, as well as face-to-face instruction, for at least the start of the 2020-21 school year. To do so, the district had to create a brand-new virtual instruction program for K-5 students.
Officials stressed the program would be a major commitment for families.
“Families need to understand this will not look the same as the virtual experience this past spring,” the school system said. “The expectations and rigor will mirror face-to-face instruction, and virtual students will have a full school day Monday-Friday.”
Families of elementary students had until July 14 to enroll in the online learning program, almost a month before the scheduled start of the school year on Aug. 6, to allow schools enough time to allocate teachers for virtual instruction.
Meanwhile, over the next few weeks, the debate to reopen schools during the pandemic reached the national level. Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden spoke at a White House event on July 7 where he told President Donald Trump it was important for students to return to face-to-face instruction.
Still, as infections and hospitalizations from the coronavirus began to surge again in Georgia, one by one the largest school districts switched their plans to start the school year in-person and switched to completely virtual instruction.
Forsyth County Schools pushed back the start of the school year by one week, to Aug. 13, but it resolved to reopen schools for families that wanted to send their kids back to classrooms, citing a more mild increase in people getting infected by the virus in Forsyth County than neighboring areas.
‘It’ll be odd’
Early on, Daves Creek Elementary School principal Eric Ashton made a plan for which teachers would work in person or virtually with students. But very quickly, Ashton realized those plans were going to change.
In meetings with parents and the local school council, Ashton heard from many who were concerned about the spread of COVID-19 in schools. Several parents said they had jobs that allowed them to work remotely through at least the end of the year. Some families were even quarantining together and willing to share the responsibility of schooling at home.
By the July 14 deadline for the district’s K-5 virtual program, 77.25% of Daves Creek students had enrolled, the most in Forsyth County.
“Our community’s been pretty adamant that they wanted virtual and they were going to choose virtual,” Ashton said, “even if the school system didn’t give that option possibly. They may have gone to another virtual option elsewhere if Forsyth didn’t offer it.”
Located off Melody Mizer Lane, in South Forsyth, Daves Creek serves nearly 1,200 students in an area where the median household income is more than $150,000, three times the state average, according to 2019 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. Some nearby areas have median household incomes near $200,000.
Schools in those areas are also among those with the highest number of students enrolled for virtual instruction. Johns Creek Elementary, located right on the border with Fulton County, has the second-highest with 62.02%. The next three schools with the highest virtual enrollment — Big Creek (57.32%), Shiloh Point (56.86%) and Settles Bridge (53.70%) — are all located in South Forsyth.
Ashton tracked Daves Creek’s numbers almost daily. Eventually, he expected more than 70% of the school’s students would start the year at home.
“As it evolved and kept going up and up and up,” Ashton said, “our plans and things have changed significantly.”
As Daves Creek’s virtual enrollment climbed, Ashton scrambled to staff it. Some teachers had already committed to teach virtually. Ashton had to ask others who said they preferred face-to-face instruction to switch to online.
“That was not their preference at the time,” Ashton said, “but obviously when you’re at 80% [virtual enrollment], sometimes you can’t accommodate all preferences.”
The school now has about 35 teachers devoted to virtual learning, about 70% of staff, though Ashton said that number could increase as students continue to register for the school year and get to choose between in-person and virtual instruction.
Some of the school’s online teachers have already started setting up their classroom to offer more live video lessons for students, one common request from parents in the school district’s surveys.
The school is also planning a special open house for virtual students outside, where students can meet their teachers before the school year while social distancing.
“We feel like that’s important to develop relationships,” Ashton said, “and be able to see them and meet them in person versus them just being virtual and never having face-to-face interaction.”
Meanwhile, with so many Daves Creek students staying home to start the year, it will be easier to implement the school district’s safety guidelines. Ashton expects about 270 students in a school that was built to hold 600, he said. That should keep class sizes to about 15-20 students per teacher, according to Ashton.
Still, on that first day of school, the hallways in Daves Creek will be missing more than three-quarters of its students.
“It’ll be odd,” Ashton said, “but we’re going to do our best to make it feel like it would be normal school as possible.”
‘We have a good plan’
This summer, Cumming Elementary School got a third playground. It couldn’t have come at a better time.
The school has the highest percentage of its students returning to face-to-face instruction this school year. Only 10.22% of its enrollment, or 95 students, signed on to the school district’s K-5 virtual learning program.
That didn’t surprise principal Jordan Livermore. Cumming Elementary’s community includes neighborhoods where the median household income is $47,000, the lowest in the county. The school also has the highest number of students that receive free and reduced lunches, and the highest percentage of students that speak a second language.
“I think the population that we serve here in Cumming Elementary desperately needs their good kids back in school,” he said.
Schools from Cumming Elementary going north are among those with the lowest percentage of students starting the school year with online learning.
Among them include Poole’s Mill (10.59%), Matt (10.73%), Chestatee (11.57%), and Silver City (14.15%).
They are located in areas where the median household income ranges from the state average of $58,000 up to $125,000. There are many “working families” who can’t afford to have one parent devoted to helping their child with online instruction, said Rice.
“Even though our district is very affluent overall, we do have pockets of poverty and homelessness around our district,” Rice said, “and each of our schools has those pockets within them.”
Livermore said Cumming Elementary is making significant changes to the in-person environment before nearly 90% of its students return for the first day of school.
Title I support teachers will be turned into regular classroom teachers to cut down on class sizes. The school is trading tables for desks in classrooms as much as possible and orienting them in the same direction so students aren’t facing each other.
Most of the changes aim to prevent exposing classes to each other as much as possible, Livermore said. For now, students will eat lunch in their classrooms. “Specials” teachers for art, music, or P.E. Will largely go to classes, and classes will stick with one “special” for two weeks at a time to protect teachers from overexposure to students.
The school is altering how it dismisses classes for the bus at the end of the day to avoid large gatherings in hallways. It is also considering pairing up classes during recess, and even separating those classes into different parts of the recess area.
“I feel real confident,” Livermore said, “because we have a good plan in place, and we will execute this plan. If changes need to be made, we will certainly make changes as need be.”