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‘You’ve given us that autonomy:’ Governor, state superintendent discuss pandemic with local school leaders
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Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a roundtable discussion with local and state officials alongside Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden, left, and State School Superintendent Richard Woods. - photo by Sabrina Kerns

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and State School Superintendent Richard Woods visited Alliance Academy for Innovation on Monday morning alongside other state and local officials for a roundtable discussion on Forsyth County Schools’ work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Officials with Forsyth County Schools said Kemp wanted to have the roundtable discussion to hear from local leaders, students, teachers and parents about their experience in education during the past two years.

Through the roundtable, leaders discussed mental health concerns, safety and access to virtual and in-person education that have become a priority since the start of the pandemic.

To begin the discussion, FCS Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden thanked Kemp for coming to the school and giving local school systems the option of making their own decisions throughout the pandemic.

“This is my 32nd year in public education, and the last two years have been the most challenging by far,” Bearden said. “Because you’ve given us that autonomy and the support and resources, we needed to get the job done, I think we served our families exceptionally well in Forsyth County.”

A legislative focus on K-12

Kemp brought up several issues that local school systems have faced in the last two years; many being exacerbated by the pandemic. With these in mind, he said K-12 education will continue to be a top priority for the state.

“[K-12 education] is more important than ever because this is the future workforce of our state,” Kemp said. “To go through a facility like we did today and see that is just incredible for me …. That’s also why we’ve been so successful in Georgia because we continue to turn that workforce out here in our K-12 systems.”

“Every profession that’s being taught in this building, we need more of them,” Kemp said.

He said he has an appreciation for the teachers and school staff who work to make sure students are continuing to find success even through a pandemic. With that in mind, he said the state is working to implement a teacher pay raise this year while planning to invest $1.4 billion in direct funding to school systems.

“We want to continue working with all the parties here today as we focus on all of these issues, including things that have been in the news recently …. of seeing materials in libraries, fairness in school sports, critical race theory and other issues that really all the districts are dealing with on a local level in some form or fashion across our state …. and across the country,” Kemp said.

Kemp believes it will be beneficial to have a “thoughtful dialogue” about these issues during the upcoming legislative session. In the meantime, he and his team are working with representatives and local school boards on how to resolve these issues.

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Local and state officials gathered at a roundtable discussion with Gov, Brian Kemp and State School Superintendent Richard Woods at Alliance Academy for Innovation on Monday, Jan. 31. - photo by Sabrina Kerns
Initial impacts of the pandemic

Moving into the roundtable discussion, parent and teacher representatives were able to speak with officials about their own experiences within FCS during the pandemic.

Dr. Jenny Gilmore, a Forsyth Virtual Academy, career pathway and Spanish teacher at Alliance Academy, said she believes FCS did a great job overall with transitioning from in-person to virtual learning at the start of the pandemic despite the immediate challenges.

Tito Ruiz, a parent at Alliance, said the pandemic has personally been hard on him and his family. His kids had loved going to school, and online learning was a challenge for them in 2020.

“You could tell they missed school, and they missed being with their friends,” Ruiz said. “And there are some subjects that are better to be taught in person.”

In the end, he was grateful to the school system for eventually allowing families to make a choice in whether in-person or virtual learning was right for them.

Even after allowing families to make the choice of coming back to their campuses for in-person instruction, Kristin Morrissey, who was chairwoman of Forsyth County Board of Education for most of the pandemic, said district leaders reached out directly to families to check in on students who had tested positive for COVID-19 or were awaiting test results and were forced to quarantine at home.

Eventually, they even started asking teachers and staff members at schools who were close to the students to reach out to them directly to help those who may have been feeling alone and isolated.

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Gov. Brian Kemp takes a tour of Alliance Academy for Innovation on Monday, Jan. 31. - photo by Sabrina Kerns
FCS’ community partnerships

Bearden also pointed out that FCS’ community partnerships made a huge impact in helping families and students throughout the pandemic.

“I’ve never worked in a community that had better partnerships than Forsyth County does,” Bearden said.

To speak on these partnerships, Forsyth County Commissioners Alfred John and Cindy Jones Mills, City of Cumming Mayor Troy Brumbalow, Forsyth County Sheriff Ron Freeman and Forsyth County Manager Kevin Tanner participated in the roundtable discussion.

John and Freeman both said the partnerships present in Forsyth are unique to the county, with representatives from FCS, the county, city, and other departments building important bonds on both the corporate and staff level.

For example, Freeman said the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office works with the school system to make sure students are protected through what has grown into one of the largest sheriff’s office programs statewide.

Through the program, 45 full-time deputies work in the school system to provide protection directly on school campuses, and Tanner said the school system agreed to pay 50% to keep all these School Resource Officers.

“Challenges continue, but I think that’s the uniqueness we find,” Freeman said. “I don’t know how you recreate that other than you don’t care who gets the credit and we care what gets done. I’ve been in law enforcement 34 years, [and] this is without a doubt the best group I have ever worked with.

“We’re a shining example of what can happen.”

Outside of safety, Mills said she and the county have also worked closely with the school system to address students’ mental health challenges and ensure struggling kids are offered important resources.

Tanner said this has especially been a priority for the school system since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Forsyth County Schools are highly successful, but they have students who fall through the cracks,” Tanner said. “And Forsyth County Schools are not just riding on their high numbers. They are recognizing the kids who need that help and providing it.”

Overall, each of the local leaders agreed that FCS provides a safe environment and quality education for Forsyth’s students.

“It’s tremendous the education that our kids get, and I think that’s a big part of why a lot of people want to come to live here,” Brumbalow said.

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Gov. Brian Kemp touches the tail of an airplane that Alliance Academy for Innovation's aviation students have been working on building for the last year. - photo by Sabrina Kerns
‘Real-world training’

During a later press conference, Kemp said he was impressed with FCS and the career pathways they offer to students through Alliance and their other schools. He toured Alliance’s campus with school officials earlier in the day, visiting students in the aviation, criminal justice, and health care pathways.

“It makes me feel good about the money we’re putting into [Career, Technology and Agricultural Education] equipment,” Kemp said during the press conference. “These kids are getting real-world training in high school, which is incredible.

He said pathways such as the ones at Alliance will be good for the future of the state’s workforce, especially as they are geared toward current labor demands in healthcare, criminal justice, cybersecurity and more.

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Gov. Brian Kemp tours Alliance Academy for Innovation on Monday, Jan. 31. - photo by Sabrina Kerns
Addressing school debates on the state, local level

Other topics discussed during the press conference centered more on issues currently facing Georgia’s school systems, including debates around library censorship and Critical Race Theory.

“People at home should know we’re going to be very thoughtful about this,” Kemp said. “We’re talking to everybody involved. We’re talking to the parents for sure, but we’re also talking to teachers and superintendents and school board members and folks back home. I think this will be a good debate for us to have moving forward.”

Bearden also addressed these current debates, emphasizing that these issues are not unique to Forsyth or Georgia.

FCS recently announced, however, the district-wide removal of eight books from its schools’ media centers. An administrative review of the books was prompted by concerns from parents that they contained “sexually explicit” material.

The removal prompted worries and rumors across the district about possible censorship within school media centers, especially as community members begin to target books specifically containing LGBTQ characters or themes.

“There are groups of parents probably in every community in the United States asking questions about materials in the media center,” Bearden said. “We have a process in place with Forsyth County Schools where if a parent objects to a material that’s in our media center, it goes through a review process. And if, as a school system, we determine that book is not appropriate, then we remove that book from the media center.”

Before leaving Alliance Academy Monday morning, Kemp met with students to talk about their plans as they continue to work through high school.

For more information about Alliance and the offered career pathways, visit www.forsyth.k12.ga.us/alliance.

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State School Superintendent Richard Woods tests out a flight simulator available through the aviation pathway at Alliance Academy for Innovation on Monday, Jan. 31. - photo by Sabrina Kerns
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Gov. Brian Kemp and State School Superintendent Richard Woods tours Alliance Academy for Innovation on Monday, Jan. 31. - photo by Sabrina Kerns
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Gov. Brian Kemp tours Alliance Academy for Innovation on Monday, Jan. 31. - photo by Sabrina Kerns
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Gov. Brian Kemp meets with students and school officials at Alliance Academy for Innovation. - photo by Sabrina Kerns