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Students eating lunches in classrooms. Random temperature checks. Virtual school events.
Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden gave the public a preview of what the return to face-to-face school might look like for students and staff on Aug. 6, the first day of the 2020-21 school year, during a virtual meeting of the Forsyth County Board of Education on Tuesday, June 2.
The superintendent laid out a draft plan for reopening schools, which closed for the final quarter of the 2019-20 school year amid the coronavirus pandemic, highlighting dozens of new policies aimed to curb the spread of the virus.
School officials are preparing for three scenarios to open the school year, Bearden said:
Full online learning, similar to the final quarter of the 2019-20 school year;
A hybrid model, with an “A week, B week” schedule where students switch week to week between in-person and online learning;
And regular in-person learning with health guidelines in place.
Online learning “is the least desirable option,” Bearden said, and a hybrid model would be “very challenging” for teachers and parents. Bearden said the only way Forsyth County Schools would adopt those scenarios is if they were directed to by the state.
District officials are also making contingencies in case a second wave of the coronavirus hits and schools are limited to online learning for a period of time.
Bearden’s presentation lasted six slides and covered guidelines that he felt closely resembled those released in a 10-page document by the Georgia Department of Education on Monday aimed at helping schools open safely in August.
“That’s a great guide to use,” Bearden said. “... If you compare the two, you’ll see a lot of similarities, but it’s not going to be exact. We’re able to tailor (our plan) to our community, which is the right thing to do.”
The plan will place a heavy burden on school nurses. They’ll be “the main point of contact” for dealing with the virus, responsible for accompanying students and staff who show symptoms of COVID-19 in isolated rooms until they can be sent home and conducting random health screenings and temperature checks.
If someone at school is diagnosed with COVID-19, that could mean closing a single school, cluster of schools, or the entire school district for a period of time to sanitize facilities, Bearden said.
The draft outlines a number of measures the school system would take to mitigate the spread of the virus, from disinfecting school buses before and after every route, monitoring ventilation systems in school buildings and installing hand sanitizer stations.
It also calls for a host of modifications to the traditional in-person learning environment.
Desks in classrooms would be oriented in the same direction to prevent students from sitting across from one another.
Lunch might be eaten in classrooms, although school administrators will be given some leeway to use cafeterias as long as large groups are avoided.
Some areas and playground equipment would be limited during recess.
Students and staff could also bring in face masks to wear.
Fewer “nonessential” visitors would be allowed in school buildings, and most events would be held virtually, including parent-teacher conferences.
Schools would follow guidelines from the Georgia High School Association for athletics.
Schools would also up their messaging about good hygiene to students, with daily hand-washing breaks for elementary students and broadcast announcements in middle and high schools encouraging proper hand-washing.
Plenty of factors could still affect the final plan that board members are likely to vote on in mid-July.
Last month, Gov. Brian Kemp and State Superintendent Richard Woods formed six working groups of educators, public health officials and state agency representatives to lead the school reopening effort. Their final recommendations aren’t expected until the end of June.
There’s also the matter of state budget cuts. The Georgia Department of Education, and other agencies, are being told to plan for 14% spending reductions. That would amount to a loss of over $35 million for Forsyth County Schools, Bearden said.
Bearden said he hopes to avoid layoffs and not increase class sizes by amending the school calendar to reduce days for staff. But the final revenue numbers from the state won’t come in until the end of June.
“There’s a lot of moving parts right now,” Bearden said.
Though board members unanimously spoke in favor of the draft plan, some questions remained, particularly for families that are still hesitant to send their kids to school amid a pandemic.
Middle school and high school students could attend Forsyth Virtual Academy or Georgia Virtual Academy full-time, Bearden said, but officials are still “talking internally” about how to offer a similar online learning opportunity for elementary students if there’s enough demand for it.
The full guidelines can be found on the Forsyth County Schools website. Bearden and board members encouraged the public to read them and submit feedback.
“We’ve got to work together,” Bearden said, “as staff members, students, parents and community to make sure we’re serving our children to the very best of our ability and make sure we’re giving them the best education that they deserve.”
Information from Capitol Beat News Service contributed to this story.