The Clarke County School District will reopen elementary and middle schools for in-person instruction on Nov. 9, as long as the county’s COVID-19 numbers remain low, Interim Superintendent Xernona Thomas said Thursday.
Clarke County experienced a massive spike in COVID-19 cases after University of Georgia students came back to campus in August—right around the time the CCSD school year was scheduled to start. But since then, cases have steadily declined to 203 per 100,000 people over the past 14 days, with a positive test rate of 3.6%. The district’s metrics for reopening schools, based on Georgia Department of Health and CDC recommendations, are 175-100 cases per 100,000 within a 14-day window, depending on age, and a positive rate of less than 5%.
Distance learning is working for some, Thomas said, and parents of K-8 students will have the option to keep their children enrolled in virtual learning. She said she is listening to the teachers and parents who object to returning to in-person instruction, but 80% of parents who rarely speak out cannot afford to hire a private tutor or a teacher for a pod.
“Those are the [students] who are already behind, who already have a disparity in learning. We cannot afford—I don’t have to have a survey to tell me that or research to tell me that,” Thomas told the school board. “These children are getting further and further behind. Our parents are working two or three jobs. We have middle-schoolers trying to help elementary-schoolers with their learning. That’s common sense. We know our demographics. We know our families. We know who we’re here to serve. As soon as we can, in a safe manner, address the needs of our majority, that is what I’m committed to do.”
While virtual learning continues for the next month, administrators will be working overtime to prepare health and safety protocols and acquire the proper equipment, Thomas said. They’ll also be monitoring COVID-19 cases to make sure the pandemic doesn’t take a turn for the worse.
“If we wake up next week and our numbers are back at 15% and 500, we’ll back up and punt, but for today, this is the thing we believe is best for the majority of kids in Clarke County,” she said.
Thomas said parents will be sent a form on Friday asking them to choose between in-person and virtual instruction and return it by next Friday. The district can release more detailed plans once they know how many students will be physically in schools, she said. But Thomas did share that no classes will be taught by substitutes, nor will teachers be asked to teach in person and online simultaneously.
School officials have previously said that students in classrooms and bus riders will be socially distanced and required to wear masks, with other precautions in place like eating meals in classrooms instead of the cafeteria that are intended to help contain any outbreaks and keep them from spreading throughout a school.
However, factors like class changes make it harder to keep high-school students apart. High schools will remain virtual at least through winter break, and possibly the end of the semester in mid-January, said Chief Academic Officer Brannon Gaskins. The end of the fall semester was pushed back when CCSD delayed the start of school by a month in hopes that the pandemic would abate.
Breakfast and lunch will remain available for students learning virtually, although Thomas said meal deliveries may end because buses are needed to carry students, so students or parents may be required to pick up meals curbside at schools.
The school board did not vote on Thomas’ plan because it previously gave her the authority to adjust the academic calendar as needed. However, no board members objected.
Board member Greg Davis pleaded with Athens residents, including UGA students, to keep taking precautions against COVID-19.
“We can protect within the school, but if the community becomes lackadaisical, if they take off their masks, or they don’t wear their masks, or they don’t follow the recommendations the CDC has made over and over and over again, we’re going to end up back here, and the kids will suffer,” he said.
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