As COVID cases surge among young people and others, Clarke County School District administrators said they’re preparing a virtual option for K-8 students during a meeting where dozens of parents used the public input period to debate whether to shut down schools again.
Some parents said CCSD’s COVID protocols are too lax and called for virtual learning as well as other, more stringent safety measures, like weekly testing, and better enforcement of the rules already on the books, like three feet of social distancing.
Dressed in a graduation cap and gown, parent Lizzie Saltz spoke from the point of view of a Delta variant virus. “At Cedar Shoals [High School], it is so hospitable for a virus of my speed and agility, I don’t know where to begin,” she said.
Although physically closing schools was not on the agenda for the Aug. 19 meeting, other parents argued that teachers and students are not equipped for virtual learning, that it’s damaging to mental health, and that it causes students whose parents can’t afford a babysitter or tutor to fall behind.
One speaker, Cindy Pope, went much further, demanding that CCSD stop requiring masks and questioning the efficacy of both masks and vaccines in the face of overwhelming medical and scientific consensus.
CCSD has reported 210 cases of COVID-19 among students and staff and almost 900 precautionary quarantines in the past two weeks. However, Superintendent Xernona Thomas has repeatedly stated that she is determined to keep schools open safely this year because many CCSD students don’t have the technology or adult supervision needed to succeed in a virtual environment.
Chief Academic Officer Brannon Gaskins said CCSD is exploring contracting with a company called Proximity Learning to provide virtual classes for 300 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Students could take those classes at home or in a classroom while supervised by a non-teacher. Currently there is no virtual option for elementary and middle school students. Proximity Learning is a division of ESS, which Gaskins said CCSD is already using for three classes that the district was unable to find anyone to teach.
High school students will also have more virtual options next semester, Gaskins said. “At our high schools, we have more and more students requesting—after drop/add, of course—to go virtual, and so I think that number will increase,” he said. “In the spring, we’re already adding more adjunct professors or adjunct teachers for sections that students didn’t think they wanted to take but now want to take,” like economics.
Board member Patricia Yager asked for “clarity” on safety protocols. She said she thought Head Nurse Amy Roark would give a presentation, but Roark did not.
Another member, Greg Davis, said the board should be giving Thomas and her staff more support. He also raised the idea of requiring that CCSD employees be vaccinated. Hospitals are doing it, he pointed out, and so is the Athens-Clarke County government. But apparently that idea had been previously rejected.
“At this point, I’m not even advocating it, but I do think it should be up for discussion,” Davis said. “And I understand why it’s not. But that doesn’t mean that it’s prudent not to.
“Parents and teachers, they want schools open,” he said. “But they want us to take every possible step we can to make sure the students are safe, and the staff is safe.”
This article has been corrected to reflect that Cindy Pope is not a parent of a current CCSD student.
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