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New school year brings efforts to bridge learning gaps, continued COVID concerns
Bulloch Schools let in Monday for 11,000 students, no masks required or vaccination questions asked
Kindergartener Harper Willis, 5, snuggles with mom Cheyenne as they check in with family engagement specialist Sharon Wilkins, left, during open house at Mattie Lively Elementary School on Thursday, July 29. All Bulloch County schools open the doors to we
Kindergartener Harper Willis, 5, snuggles with mom Cheyenne as they check in with family engagement specialist Sharon Wilkins, left, during open house at Mattie Lively Elementary School on Thursday, July 29. All Bulloch County schools open the doors to welcome students and parents back, as well as help them find their new classrooms and meet their new teachers. - photo by By SCOTT BRYANT/staff

The Bulloch County Schools start a new year Monday with efforts underway to help students overcome learning gaps and address social and emotional needs left by the two previous pandemic-stricken terms.

But this new beginning arrives amid some resurgence in COVID-19 cases locally and nationally.

Superintendent of Schools Charles Wilson was asked Friday whether the new school year represents a return to normal and to what extent the schools are still dealing with extraordinary challenges.

“I guess I’d call it the new and improved normal,” Wilson said. “You know, we do learn things along the way, and I think there have been some things that we’ve learned, new practices we’ve adopted.  So yes, I guess you could say it’s back to normal from the standpoint of what people need and want for school.”

As of Friday morning, 11,184 students – the most ever, when and if they all show up – were enrolled in the county school district, from prekindergarten through 12th grade. This included 10,758 students headed to traditional, face-to-face classes, while another 426 students, or 3.8% of the total, were signed up for the “virtual,” at-home learning program.

“Obviously one of  the big challenges is right in front of us, I  mean what’s  going to happen with the next strain of COVID, and  we are sensitive to that and we’re  responding to that, but we’re  also  trying to take  what  we’ve  learned and  really incorporate  it into our overall practices for wellbeing and awareness,” Wilson  said.

 

Last year’s lessons

One year ago, after a two-week delay into August, more than 4,700 students, 44% of Bulloch County Schools’ total enrollment  at the time, started school through an online virtual option, leaving some classrooms empty and buses half full. But by the end of first semester, families of more than 1,600 “virtual” students requested that they return to face-to-face instruction, and school district administrators required that over 500 more return in January, citing a lack of sufficient progress or participation by these students.

Principals reported at mid-year that many students, after challenges with the virtual option followed the nine-week school shutdown at the end of the 2019-2020 term, showed significant learning deficits. Parents and social services professionals also began reporting that repeated precautionary quarantines away from school were having negative effects on students’ social and emotional wellbeing.
“When you take into account what students have been exposed to and what they have had  to endure in these past  18 months, it has  been severe,”  Wilson  said Friday.  “So in everything we’re doing, we have to be looking at the overall wellbeing, especially the social and emotional wellbeing, of students.”

 

Coaches for teachers

For the school year now beginning, the Board of Education in its budget approved adding new jobs for six qualified educators as instructional coaches and six more as “school climate” coaches.

The instructional coaches will coach teachers on ways to help students catch up and move ahead in their learning. The “climate” coaches will sometimes work with students directly, but only the extent needed to model for teachers how they can help support students’ social and emotional needs, Wilson said.

This is part of the school system’s newly enhanced Multi-Tiered System of Supports. The MTSS is also intended to address behavioral problems, since students not knowing their schools’ expectations can be considered another kind of “learning gap,” he said.

The employment of the coaches and other aspects of the MTSS will be funded over the next three years from a 20% required set-aside in the school district’s expected $23.5 million in special federal funding under the American Rescue Plan Act.

As of Friday, the school system had all six of the instructional coaches and five of the climate coaches employed.

But another effort to address learning gaps was completed during the summer, Wilson noted. “Summer learning opportunities,” classes with individualized instruction focused on critical skills for English and math, were offered for elementary, middle school, special education and English for Speakers of Other Languages   students at seven campuses. More than 500 students enrolled in these voluntary courses.

“Some pretty good surprising things happened this summer too with the summer learning opportunities.  …,” Wilson said. “More progress was made than we even intended.”

 

Few COVID rules

School district staff members also created a “Return-to-School Plan” for dealing with illness and infections in the new school year.

The plan emphasizes personal responsibility, stating that parents should not send their children to school, and school employees should not come to work, if they have COVID-19 symptoms or, while remaining unvaccinated, live in the same household with someone sick with COVID or have been in close contact  with someone with  the illness  for 15 minutes or more while  not  wearing  a mask.

“Families are encouraged to conduct a daily health self-check before going to work or school,” Hayley Greene, Bulloch County Schools public relations director, emphasized in an email.

A “Daily Health Self-Check” flier with tips on how to report COVID-related absences is available on the school district website and from each school.

Masks are “encouraged, but not required in schools or on buses,” which really was also the case throughout the last school year.

Although now available to people age 12 and over, COVID-19 vaccinations are not only not required for school attendance here, but “no Bulloch County Schools employee or representative is authorized to ask students if they are vaccinated,” the plan summary states.

The Return-to-School Plan also states that fully vaccinated individuals will not have to be quarantined because of exposure to a confirmed case unless they become symptomatic.

The plan for dealing with illness and infections can be found at www.bullochschools.org/returntoschool.

Wilson noted that school nurses, as authorized users of the Georgia Registry of Immunization Transactions and Services, or GRITS, can access information about individuals’ vaccination status for evidence-based contact traces when cases occur.

 

Visitor protocols

Students and their parents or guardians had an opportunity to meet teachers and administrators during open-house events at each of the schools and one for the virtual program Thursday.

Starting Monday, visitor protocols apply, with some exceptions for the beginning of the school year. Parents may walk elementary school children to their classrooms during the first two weeks of school. But the school system encourages middle and high school students to be independent, Greene noted.

After August 13, parents may walk children to the main entrance or foyer, but not beyond the secured area to their classrooms.

“If a parent was unable to meet their child's teacher during open house, parents may ask the school office to make an appointment with the teacher, or the parent may send the teacher an email or send a note via their child to request a meeting,” she wrote. “School administrators and office staff will help facilitate this communication.”

 

Traffic cautions

Parents are advised to allow plenty of extra travel time to arrive at school on time because school traffic is always heavier the first week and especially the first day, Greene noted.

Drivers should watch for school buses on the road and for children at bus stops and be courteous, and “stop” means stop in both directions when a bus's stop  arm is extended, and or its lights flashing, she  added.

 

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