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Decided: First day of school Aug. 17, with in-person and virtual options
Parent Tina Mirabile hopes to persuade the Bulloch County Board of Education with found statistics to get children back to face-to-face learning as soon as possible during Thursday's meeting at the William James Complex on July 9.

This time it’s official: The first day of classes for Bulloch County Schools students will be Aug. 17, with parents able to choose traditional face-to-face school or a stay-home virtual plan for their children.

That’s a two-week delay from the originally planned start date of Aug. 3, but teachers will still return to work July 23, getting the extra two weeks to prepare. The Board of Education approved the recommendation from Superintendent Charles Wilson by a 7-1 vote Thursday evening.

During the meeting’s public comments phase, 13 people, some but not all of them parents, voiced facts and opinions on both sides over the question of restarting school during the COVID-19 pandemic. But most spoke for having in-person school, as least for families who feel comfortable with it.

First to speak, parent and grandparent Sabrina Davis asked that the board not rush to reopen the schools. The youngest of her nine children will be a senior at Southeast Bulloch High School this year, but Davis also has 20 grandchildren, 14 of whom attend schools in the Bulloch County system. She also has custody of two nieces enrolled in the schools.

“I’m a bit confused at the on-again, off-again … of us returning back to school one day and then changing it back to another,” she said. “I’m very concerned about my kids going to school with the COVID situation. To me, it’s rush-to-judgment, because nobody knows what’s going on with this. … Wait! What is it going to hurt this school system waiting till it’s safe?”


Face-to-face support

But Ashley Ellis, a local business owner and single parent with two sons who will be a senior and freshman at Statesboro High School, said, “Education is more than just academics” and spoke of leadership opportunities, hands-on lab work, clubs and extracurricular activities available to students attending school in-person.

“I know the value the teachers, the staff, the administration and coaches offer not only my children but all the students in our school system, and I can’t imagine any more time passing without them having that personal, face-to-face influence on a daily basis,” Ellis said. “I feel like I would be cheating them from something I know my children need and deserve.”

She also recited a passage from the American Academy of Pediatrics website. There the AAP, a professional association of pediatricians, “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with the goal of having students physically present in school.” The AAP notes evidence of “negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020.”

Dr. Michelle Zeanah, a pediatrician with a specialty practice in Statesboro, spoke directly to the school board.

“I have hundreds of parents in my behavioral pediatrics practice that have expressed their concern at their own lack of skills in teaching their children with ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, anxiety and other learning differences,” she said. “They look forward to their child being taught by a qualified teacher.”

Delia Mobley, executive director of Open Hearts Community Mission, recited three brief stories of children suffering in abusive or detrimental family situations while the schools have been closed.

“I’ve seen over the past months what this pandemic has done to some of these families, and my heart has been broken,” Mobley said. “I want to be a voice for those that aren’t being heard. Their teachers, their counselors, church nor their community leaders can hear them because they’re locked in their home.”


Flood of input

About 65 community members attended Thursday’s meeting, with officials not keeping anyone out despite efforts at social distancing. Another 502 people watched online, said school system Public Relations Director Hayley Greene.

Wilson reported receiving “a tremendous amount of input,” including almost 900 responses to his call for questions before his two recent online answer sessions. Board members also spoke of a flood of calls, texts and emails.

“It has been very helpful, and I think it’s given us a lot of feedback and guidance as to where this community stands, because I think a lot of you have alluded to it, and I know this board knows it, but in the end we have to make our own decision in this community as to which direction we want to go,” Wilson said.

A three-tiered plan issued in early June by Georgia’s Department of Education and Department of Public Health gave only “guidance” for reopening schools, he noted. Originally, most of the planning here was for the green, “Low or No Spread” of COVID-19 or yellow, “Minimal or Moderate Spread” situations.

But on June 26, Wilson learned that the Department of Public Health had classed Bulloch County as a “Substantial Spread” area.

In that situation, the state guidance “by default” advises closing schools, subject to local decisions about the details, Wilson noted.


Local decision

“Again, it’s guidance,” he said. “It’s good guidance, and the state was incredibly helpful to be stepping out there and trying to provide guidance in such a time of uncertainty. It does not say that is what we have to do.”

Meanwhile, much of the feedback, Wilson said, came down to parents saying, “Please provide us choices.”

He requested an addition to the agenda to recommend a new plan.

After agreeing to amend the agenda, the board took up and eliminated a tabled motion from two weeks earlier that would have postponed school until Sept. 8. District 8 member Maurice Hill, who had made that motion, and District 5 member Glennera Martin, who had seconded it, didn’t raise their hands, and the other six members voted “no.”

Martin then seconded a motion by District 1 member Cheri Wagner to approve Wilson’s new recommendation, starting school Aug. 17 in both traditional and virtual formats.

“We know that the pandemic is frightening, it’s real and it’s uncertain,” Martin said. “But at the same time, you as parents have spoken. You have spoken in favor of the virtual program as well as face-to-face.”

She said she could be wholeheartedly for both “with consideration that we will actually make sure that this process is as safe as possible.”


Masks ‘encouraged’

For face-to-face schooling while COVID-19 remains in substantial spread or minimum-to-moderate spread, face masks will be “not required but strongly encouraged” and provided to staff upon request, according to the chart Wilson handed board members. Social distancing will be “not required but strongly encouraged” with “rooms arranged with students facing same direction when feasible.”

Students and adults are “expected to self-screen for temperature and COVID-19 symptoms prior to arrival at school and stay home if symptoms are present” and seek medical attention if needed. More details will be provided in a follow-up story.

Hill was the one board member who voted “no.”

“I wanted to make sure we had a plan that’s concrete, that if maybe we can’t keep all our kids safe, a plan that would slow the spread, and I just don’t see a concrete plan that’s doing that,” he said after the meeting. “I want every child to go back to school. I have children. I want them to go back to school, but I don’t want to jeopardize their safety.”

For the virtual option, the Edgenuity platform will be used for sixth through 12th grade and the SchoolsPLP program for kindergarten through fifth grade. Both use recorded lessons by teachers employed by the companies that produce these.

Local teachers will monitor students’ progress and provide guidance and supplemental instruction. As many teachers as necessarily will be reassigned to fulfill this role as soon as administrators know how many parents are choosing the virtual option, Wilson said.


Choose by July 24

A questionnaire to parents about their choice and any device or internet needs is slated to be posted to the school system’s online Infinite Campus Parent Portal next Friday, July 17, with email alerts to parents and efforts to contact those who do not have email, staff members said after the meeting. One week later, July 24, is the announced deadline for responses.


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