Forsyth County had the attention of the top education official in the country, as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos stopped by for a visit on Tuesday.
DeVos, Georgia Schools Superintendent Richard Woods and U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall visited Forsyth Central High School to tour the school and take part in a roundtable discussion with administrators, teachers and parents.
“I wanted to come and visit another area that was reopening for classes in-person, and Forsyth, I think, has done a really great job of, again, looking through all of the needs of the students district-wide,” DeVos said. “And so, first consulting with parents and understanding what they really wanted has been the first very important step in getting us here today.
“So, I just wanted to see another school that is back to school in-person, and it’s a thrill to go to the two classrooms we visited and talked with the students.”
DeVos said the local system had provided “a great roadmap” for reopening schools but “at the same time, I’d say there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
“Every community is different, but I think they have certainly modeled a very viable and solid example of what can be done to ensure that they’re meeting the needs of students across the district,” she said.
Superintendent Jeff Bearden – who in July was a featured panelist at the National Dialogue on Safely Reopening America’s Schools and later met with President Donald Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Second Lady Karen Pence for a round-table discussion – said DeVos’s visit came after her staff reached out to visit and take a look at the reopening.
“Any time you have a federal official that wants to look at what you’re doing, and we’re proud of what we’re doing, I’m going to say yes every time because this is an opportunity for us to showcase how well our students or staff and our community have responded,” Bearden said.
As Forsyth has given the option of learning virtually, in-person or a hybid of the two, Bearden said the school system came to that decision after looking at the data and consulting with students, parents and teachers.
“And some of them were genuinely afraid to send their students back to school, so we said, ‘you know what, we’ve got to provide them the option, we can’t force those families to come back,’” Bearden said, “but I also heard from families that said, ‘I’m 100% ready to come back, please let us come back,’ so we felt like we had to provide that. But the other big takeaway is local data has to drive your decisions.”
Bearden said data released this week had shown Forsyth County to have the fourth-lowest number of cases per 100,000 residents, which he said was “very important data” to have when making a decision.
“I would caution every family out there, this is day-to-day,” he said. “We’re going to continue to track the data. Data will drive decisions.”
What those in the school had to say
Before taking an opportunity to tour the school, DeVos sat down with several members of the Forsyth Central community, including principals of feeder schools Otwell Middle and Cumming Elementary, to discuss their thoughts on the reopening process, how the first week of school had gone and to let her know about the area.
Forsyth Central Principal Mitch Young said while there was an option for how students could learn, there were parts of the curriculum that could not be achieved via online learning.
“There’s a lot of hands-on classes… some are self-contained, special ed, some are learning English for the first time,” Young said. “They need to be here face-to-face, so 72% of our students are here face-to-face.”
Vince Cardoso, who teaches Spanish for native speakers, said his class was among those that could not be done as well online.
“My kids are all Hispanic, some of them are ESOL, and as Mr. Young alluded to, a lot of them cannot learn virtually,” he said. “A lot of my kids need the sense of belonging that cannot be established appropriately in a virtual setting. Our program is a safe place. It is a family.”
Wendy Goodroe, a parent who was part of the roundtable, said “as a mother, you always worry about your children” but having the support of the school leaders and the community “definitely makes you feel better.”
“It makes you feel important,” she said. “It makes you feel like your particular child is the one that they care about, and I can tell you, when we did have the opportunity to choose virtual or face-to-face, it was absolutely face-to-face for my one son who is still here at Central, in part because Dr. Bearden, I fully trust him and his staff and the research they have done, even prior to March 13.”
DeVos also had a chance to stop by a couple of classrooms, including Bill Schuyler’s biotechnology, where students, including sophomores Ireland Gorecki and Callie Gillespie, were working in a lab measuring liquids in micropipettes.
“I’m really happy because… with STEM, it’s a really great opportunity for us, and a major part of that is labs in the classroom,” Gillespie said, “and without that, it wouldn’t really be the same experience, we wouldn’t learn the same things and it wouldn’t be as special for us.”
Gorecki said being back at school put her back in a schedule and routine and said she felt the school and students had been taking safety seriously.
“Here at Central, it’s been the best I could ever imagine,” she said. “Before we even touch anything and after we touch everything, we use hand sanitizer. Everybody I’ve seen wears masks very frequently and we have the hallways marked, the lunches are [socially distanced.]”
While many inside the school were welcoming to DeVos, a crowd of about 15 protestors gathered at the Almon C. Hill Center, located on Almon C. Hill Drive across from Forsyth Central, to voice their opposition to the secretary of education.
“We don’t like her education policies, and we were not happy that she was coming to our schools, so we wanted to make our presence known,” said Lisa Oldani, who said she has three children in the school system, including two at Forsyth Central.
Several of the protestors said they did not find out about DeVos’s visit until late on Monday afternoon, too late to go through the process of getting a permit for a larger protest.
Oldani and others also said they felt the visit was for political purposes and “a lot of this may have had to do with Dr. Bearden’s trip to visit the White House this summer.”
“We feel that while they’ve tried to take certain steps to keep students and teachers safe, that they’re not doing everything that they can,” Oldani said, “and we don’t feel like the district is being transparent enough with the actual numbers and the way they’re being reported.”
Other protestors said they also felt like the visit was prematurely celebrating the reopening.
“It takes an average of 21 days from the time you test positive to the time that you pass away from it,” said parent Jennifer Senneff, “so how many people are in that three-week period right now