When they meet again Thursday evening, Bulloch County Board of Education members and Superintendent Charles Wilson will consider details of how to start school on schedule Aug. 3 with the world still not clear of the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the June 11 board meeting, Wilson and the assistant superintendents presented local survey results and Georgia’s Path to Recovery for K-12 Schools, a set of guidelines developed by the state’s Department of Education and Department of Public Health. The state plan recommends three tiers of steps based on the level of community spread of the coronavirus, to be determined by state and local health officials.
At this point, the intent of Wilson and the board is to start face-to-face classes Aug. 3 as originally scheduled, while also offering an online, at-home learning option for sixth grade through 12th grade, he said in a phone interview Tuesday. At least that is the plan if the “community spread” determination is in the green, “Low or No Spread,” or yellow, “Minimal or Moderate Spread” columns.
“What we got into with the board on that is we do plan to go back to school,” Wilson said. “Our plan is to start school back on August 3rd as scheduled, you know, face-to-face school … and we would follow the state’s guidance to do so.”
Spectrum of infection
The Path to Recovery guidelines also include a red column, for “Substantial Spread” of COVID-19 in a community. For that level, the plan recommends a shift to distance or remote learning, in other words online instruction. ”Substantial spread” could also bring targeted closure of buildings to isolate and disinfect affected areas, short-term closure of schools for deep-cleaning, or extended closures of 14 days or more.
At the other end of the spectrum, “low or no” spread of the disease would simply allow the schools to remain open for traditional instruction, subject to preventative measures such as frequent cleaning. With a midrange determination of minimal or moderate spread, a school district’s leaders could choose traditional, face-to-face instruction, a complete switch to online or remote learning, or hybrid options.
“We did talk with the board about these levels of spread that are to be determined by the Department of Public Health. …,” Wilson said. “We don’t know what those will be, but what we’re doing is we’re refining all of the state’s guidance down to our own local protocol as to what we would do in each of those stages.”
The logistics of hybrid options such as alternating student schedules for school attendance would be very difficult to manage logistically and were ruled out early in the board’s discussion, Wilson said. So the approach proposed here is to fully reopen school but provide an option for online, at-home schooling where possible for families who want that.
The ‘virtual’ option
“We do need to get back to school, and we talked more about what that looks like for us under both the no-to-low spread and the moderate spread sections,” Wilson said. “We understand that some people might not be comfortable with that, and we started pulling together plans for our virtual learning option, which is an online version of school for Bulloch County Schools students.”
“Now that will be for grades six through 12,” he added. “We do not have an option for K-5 right now, and we’re experiencing some pretty intense, time-bound challenges in trying to pull all of this together to provide these options for our students’ families under such tight timeframes, but we’re doing the best we can with it.”
If public health officials ever determine that Bulloch County has gone to the “red” condition, substantial spread of COVID-19, the school system would fall back to “complete K-12 distance learning,” Wilson said.
When healthcare professionals raised the alarm about the pandemic in March, schools closed statewide, and Bulloch County’s remained closed for the last nine weeks of the 2019-20 term. The schools offered voluntary online instruction and some printed resources for at-home learning. But online coursework was not made mandatory because of concerns about equitable internet access.
Will be graded
But the “virtual” option for middle and high schools in the 2020-21 term is intended to provide graded, for-credit coursework.
For more than a month now, committees led by principals have been working on plans for providing internet access and devices, delivering online instruction, and grading and testing in the “virtual environment.” In all, about 15 committees involving teachers, principals, counselors and district staff members have been assigned to areas of local concern and components of the state guidelines.
Training for teachers in online instruction is also planned, Assistant Superintendent for School Improvement Teresa Phillips told the board June 11.
“We also believe that we need a school-student-parents compact for people that are enrolling in those online programs so that we can lay out the expectations and the roles and responsibilities of the school, of the students and of the parents,” she said.
Survey’s mixed signals
The board also received the results of a survey that drew 11,061 parent responses. A little less than half of parents responding, 47.3%, said they were extremely (24%) or moderately (23.3%) comfortable with their children returning to school, while 14.7% said they were only slightly comfortable with it. So, the other 38% expressed varying degrees of discomfort with the idea of an in-person return.
Meanwhile, 54.2% said they were either definitely (25.2%) or probably (29%) interested in a fully online option.
The number of parent responses actually exceeded the number of students enrolled in the schools, recently about 10,900. About 14% of responses came from the same households, indicating that both parents completed the survey, Phillips said.
After the lifting of most statewide restrictions, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Bulloch County in the last two weeks has shown its largest one-day increases yet. This may in part be due to increased testing, but the number of COVID-19 patients being treated at East Georgia Regional Medical Center also increased again, to a peak of 12 on Monday, in reports by Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn.
“There’s a chance that things will continue to change between now and August 3rd, and so what we’re trying to do is make sure we have plans together for how we will do things no matter what,” Wilson said.
The Board of Education meets at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the William James Educational Complex, 150 Williams Road, Statesboro. Recent meetings have been held in the cafeteria to allow social distancing.