Parents are asked to choose by July 24 between the Bulloch County Schools’ traditional, face-to-face option and the stay-home virtual option for classes for their children starting Aug. 17.
The school system began sending families links Tuesday evening via email and social media to the webpage www.bullochschools.org/returntoschool, which includes the parent choice form. It also carries two “Return to School Plan … Key Points” fliers, one for the virtual program and one for the traditional program, and parents are encouraged to examine both.
After the Board of Education last Thursday set Aug. 17 as the new school-start date, a two-week postponement, and affirmed Superintendent Charles Wilson’s recommendation of the two options, he said that parents making their choices known would be the next crucial step.
“One of the next things that really has to happen is us reaching out, finding out from them exactly what parents’ intentions are, and having a deadline on that so we can make plans around who’s coming back and who’s going to be pursuing a virtual program,” Wilson said.
So, July 24 is the deadline, although school officials will make other efforts to reach families who may not have internet access.
The choices made now will be for first semester. School officials plan to ask parents to choose again in November for the second semester, which begins Jan. 6.
For the virtual option, the Edgenuity online learning platform – well established in use at the local Transitions Learning Center alternative school and Graduation Performance Academy – will be the central means of instruction for sixth through 12th grades.
The SchoolsPLP platform will be used for kindergarten through fifth grade. Both use recorded lessons. When teachers appear on screen, they are those employed by companies that produce these courses.
But local teachers will be assigned to every class to monitor students’ progress and provide guidance and supplemental instruction.
Parents and students can now see example lessons from both SchoolsPLP and Edgenuity, again through links at www.bullochschools.org/returntoschool.
Knowing how many students will be receiving instruction through the virtual option will help administrators determine how many teachers must be reassigned.
As far as possible, the school system will avoid giving teachers the “double duty” of teaching in both formats, Wilson said during the meeting. He and other staff members said they believe this plan can be carried out without hiring additional teachers.
Unlike last spring’s voluntary online activities, the fall virtual option will provide required, graded weekly assignments.
Teachers are still expected to return to work next week, July 23, and so will have two additional weeks to train and prepare.
While the “key points” chart for the virtual program emphasizes the instructional platforms and expectations, the “key points” for traditional in-person school have to do with efforts to protect students, school employees and the community from the spread of COVID-19.
The Bulloch County Schools’ approach is to “strongly encourage” the use of masks, self-screening, hygiene practices such as hand-washing, and social distancing.
“We’re trying to be clear,” Wilson said after last week’s board decision. “We will reinforce, we will encourage, we will strongly encourage, we will work with people, but we just can’t make people do things, and we don’t want to set ourselves up for failure in that process, so we’re trying to do the best we can in being reasonable and clear.”
The local plan was drawn up under guidelines issued in early June by the Georgia Department of Education with reference to Georgia Department of Public Health categories for “community spread” of the coronavirus. But as Wilson noted, the guidelines allowed for local decision making.
“They say in that guidance you don’t have to do this, you can do something different as a community. Well, we just did something different as a community. …,” he said last Thursday night. “Our community spoke and our board heard them, I heard the board, and we came up with our own plan. So this is our plan; this is Bulloch County Schools’ plan for proceeding with school.”
For face-to-face schooling while COVID-19 remains in substantial spread or minimal-to-moderate spread, face masks would be “not required but strongly encouraged” and provided to staff upon request, according to the key points chart.
Social distancing would be “not required but strongly encouraged” with rooms arranged with students facing same direction when feasible.
Other key points describe distancing practices, mostly encouraged instead of required, at recess and on school buses.
Students will eat breakfast and lunch on a rotating schedule in their classrooms or the school cafeteria to reduce the number of students in the cafeteria at one time. Students will be seated on one side of lunchroom tables when feasible.
The schools will “remind students of proper hygiene practice,” including with signs throughout their buildings, and will make hand sanitizer available free to students and staff.
Common touch-points in buildings are to be cleaned and sanitized after each use when feasible. Restrooms will be cleaned and sanitized daily and ventilation systems monitored for proper operation.
If someone is sick
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.
If they get sick at school, students will be sent to a school nurse for evaluation and parents contacted to pick them up immediately. Sick employees are to be sent home. The Department of Public Health is expected to handle contact tracing, and DPH guidelines will be followed for when students or employees who have had or been exposed to COVID-19 can return to school.
One thing the schools will not be doing is notifying the public when students and employees test positive for COVID-19.
“At the direction of the Department of Public Health and to comply with federal privacy laws, we will make no mass announcements about COVID-19 positive cases that involve our students or employees,” Hayley Greene, Bulloch County Schools public relations director, stated in an email Friday. “All contact tracing and notification will be done through the proper channels of the DPH.”
In fact, the Georgia Department of Education updated its guidelines Monday so that they no longer emphasize the concept of community spread. While still showing the red, yellow and green zones originally connected to the spread levels, the new guidelines present a “decision tree” for use by school district leaders in consultation with local health departments.
These guidelines suggest actions to be taken in preventive practices (now the green zone), enhanced mitigation measures (yellow zone) and temporary school closures (red zone) in response to COVID-19 cases occurring at school or among students or school employees.
In recent weeks, not just Bulloch County but all counties in the area, and almost all Georgia counties, had qualified as “substantial spread” areas based on the cumulative number of cases per 100,000 residents.
As will be detailed in a further story, public school systems in most neighboring counties now plan to offer both traditional school and a virtual option. Some, but not all, have also postponed the first day of school by one or two weeks.