August 3 became less certain as the first day of school for about 11,000 Bulloch County students Thursday evening when Board of Education members made and tabled a motion to postpone to Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day.
One board member suggested an unspecified shorter delay. The decision is set to be taken up at the board’s next regular meeting, July 9.
Adding more doubt, after the plans discussed in detail Thursday were parent options for the “yellow” condition of minimal or moderate community spread of COVID-19 and the go-ahead “green” condition of low or no spread, Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn reported Friday that the county is currently in a condition of substantial spread.
This is the “red” zone that under Georgia Department of Community Health and Department of Education guidelines would warrant keeping school buildings closed if it persists.
Two weeks earlier, the board heard the basics of the back-to-school plan and received the results of a parent survey, both before a recent upsurge in coronavirus cases here and nationally. Earlier this week, Superintendent of Schools Charles Wilson said that based on feedback he had received from board members, they were preparing to reopen “face-to-face” school on schedule Aug. 3, but providing an option for “virtual,” fully online learning for students in sixth through 12th grades. He had also noted the short time frame for planning and making decisions.
“Well, Mr. Wilson, that’s been my major concern from day one. Are we allowing ourselves enough time to clearly think things through and not rush?” District 8 Board of Education member Maurice Hill said, about three hours into Thursday’s long meeting.
As the question went around the table, other board members indicated support for a delay to allow for a public forum and for parents to receive information, decide between face-to-face and virtual school options and answer a questionnaire. Some also mentioned the need to shift teachers into new roles based on parents’ responses.
‘Virtual’ now K-12
This was after board members insisted on expanding the virtual school option to include kindergarten through fifth grade. Assistant Superintendent for School Improvement Teresa Phillips reported that administrators have found an online learning platform that will make this possible.
“I’m ready for the kids to go back to school, I think our teachers are ready to go back, but I think that we need to do it right and give our stakeholders time to think it through,” said District 4 member April Newkirk.
Only the two health professionals on the board, District 3’s Stuart Tedders, dean of the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health at Georgia Southern University, and District 1’s Cheri Wagner, a registered nurse, expressed a clear preference for moving ahead with the Aug. 3 start date.
“I personally think we ought to strive for opening on the third,” Tedders said. “I think that’s what we should strive for. Now, I agree … I think we need to open it up for community input. I think this needs to really be viewed as a dynamic document.”
Wagner said, “I have overwhelmingly heard from people that they want to start August 3rd.”
Motion to postpone
When Hill made his motion for a postponement, he at first included no new date for starting school, and District 5 member Glennera Martin seconded. When other members asked that a new opening date be included, Hill said the day after Labor Day, and Martin agreed. This would be Tuesday, Sept. 8, currently a teacher in-service day and not a student class day, a month into the existing school calendar.
Tedders asked how the missed days would be made up, and Wilson said he didn’t know.
“I am in favor of delaying the school start date, but I don’t know that we need that much time, and before I vote ‘yes,’ I want to make sure we have a plan on what the makeup days are,” Newkirk said.
She added that, while she disagrees with thinking of the schools as child care, making child care arrangements for another month if school doesn’t start back would be reality facing many parents.
Chairman Mike Sparks, who retains voting and motion-making ability as the member from District 2, offered a motion to table Hill’s motion to the July 9 meeting. Tedders seconded the tabling motion, which passed 6-2, with Hill and Martin voting “no.”
Earlier in the meeting, Assistant Superintendent for Business Services Troy Brown described the portion of the plan covering sanitation and prevention measures for face-to-face school.
Some parents, school employees and board members voiced objections to the lack of required temperature checks and hand sanitizer and mask use. More may be reported on this as plans develop for a parent forum, which officials said will probably be online but could possibly include limited in-person attendance.
Friday, when Wynn, the county public safety and Emergency Management Agency director, released his daily COVID-19 update, he included the information that Bulloch County is considered by the Georgia Department of Public Health to be in a condition of “substantial spread.” It apparently has been for some time.
A county reaches this level when it has more than 100 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population, he was told by an official with the regional health office in Waycross. Bulloch County, with fewer than 80,000 people, has seen 261 confirmed cases.
So this is a cumulative measure. But Bulloch’s case numbers have also surged recently, by more than 100 confirmed cases in the past two weeks and 29 cases in just the 24 hours that went into Wynn’s Friday report.
Bulloch County Schools committees have also developed a plan for condition “red.” It involves providing distance learning, taught by local teachers, with required coursework and grading, for all students not already enrolled in a virtual option.
The Statesboro Herald asked Wilson via email Friday whether the “substantial spread” status, if it doesn’t change, means that under state guidelines the schools should remain closed for in-person classes.
“From what I understand, that is the case for now,” he said in his reply. “However, we will continue to develop the plans that we have and adjust accordingly.”