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CCSD Targets March to Reopen Athens Schools

CCSD Superintendent Xernona Thomas retired Oct. 8.

The Clarke County School District is targeting March for most students to return to in-person classes, assuming COVID-19 numbers continue to fall.

“I, as well as our cabinet, are very committed to returning students to school,” Superintendent Xernona Thomas said at the school board’s Thursday meeting. 

The district’s plan calls for special education students to return to buildings for 2–4 days a week starting Feb. 15.

Pre-K through second grade students will go back Mar. 1, grades 3–5 on Mar. 15 and grades 6–8 on Mar. 22. The phased-in approach is due to lack of staff, according to Thomas. All three groups will attend class four days a week, with remote learning on Wednesdays to provide time for deep-cleaning buildings and contact tracing. 

High schools will be phased in starting Mar. 15 and will have a reduced schedule of 9 a.m.–1 p.m., combined with live and recorded virtual instruction.

“We have been hit very, very hard in our transportation department as it relates to COVID, and the only way we could bring all three groups back is by having a reduced schedule for our high school students,” Chief Academic Officer Brannon Gaskins said.

An all-virtual option will remain available, and parents are being asked to choose their preference by Feb. 11. 

The goal is eventually to resume a normal five-day schedule. That can happen one of two ways, Director of Nursing Amy Roark said: Either teachers and staff are vaccinated or Clarke County’s COVID numbers meet CDC guidelines for reopening schools.

At the time of the meeting, Clarke County had 741 cases per 100,000 people over the past 14 days, a positive test rate of 10% and 99% of ICU beds in use. Roark called those numbers “critically high” but said they’ve been trending downward since mid-January. For a full return, Roark said she’d like to see the case numbers in the 200s or a positivity rate of less than 5%.

Since then, Clarke County’s cases have fallen to 604 per 100,000 residents in the past 14 days, and the positive test rate is now 8.9%, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

“Hopefully, with vaccination efforts, we will continue to see downward trends,” Roark said. CCSD is prepared to start vaccinating teachers and staff once Georgia enters Phase 1B, she said, but the date for that transition is unknown. The district is also partnering with UGA on testing, she said. In addition, CCSD has ordered 5,000 face shields to further protect employees, Gaskins said.

While many teachers have been vocal about their safety concerns, Thomas said she is hearing from an equal number of parents who think the district has been prioritizing adults over children by remaining online-only. Thomas has said that virtual instruction is not working for all students, with child-care options limited and many left by themselves or having to watch siblings while their parents or guardians are at work.

But Thomas—who came down with COVID herself in July —also said that she is not going to bow to pressure to reopen as quickly as other school districts in the Athens area.

“We have been very cautious and conservative in terms of our return in an effort to protect all of our stakeholders—not just our teachers, but our students, our families, other staff—but at some point we are going to have to look at what’s best for children,” Thomas said.