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Private schools start new academic year with variety of responses to COVID-19
All require temperature checks but keep masks optional for students
Bulloch Academy teacher Barbara Conner takes the temperature of seventh grader Nick May as parents drop off their students on Friday, Aug. 14. All 600 students get their temperature taken before entering the school. - photo by By SCOTT BRYANT/staff

Three private schools in Statesboro have now welcomed students for the 2020-21 school year, with a variety of different protective measures and accommodations for the COVID-19 pandemic.

All are conducting temperature checks on students, faculty and staff each morning, something the county school system is not doing. As in the county’s public schools, wearing facemasks is encouraged but not required for students at all of the private schools, but their policies on teachers and staff wearing them vary.

The largest, Bulloch Academy, started classes Aug. 6 and had completed five days by Thursday. Head of School Leisa Houghton noted that B.A.’s place in the sequence of local school openings was unique this year, since the public Bulloch County Schools postponed to this coming Monday.

“This is the very first time that we have opened, of course, before the public schools,” Houghton said Thursday. “So we still have some people looking at coming. We’re right around 605 students, which would be the largest number we have ever had.”

B.A. traditionally starts back one week to a week and a half later than the public schools.

Another unusual thing at Bulloch Academy right now is the big construction project in the middle of campus. This work will create a new administration, media center and cafeteria suite. Later, the conversion of former common areas to classrooms will allow for enrollment growth.

Friday morning, a long tent still sheltered a row of teachers who approached vehicles arriving on the lower-school, or elementary, side to take the temperatures of students, catching most before they got out of the cars. Behind the tent, the new, permanent “carpool” canopy had just been completed.

Temperature checks in the carpool line were also underway on the upper-school side. The academy purchased 50 pistol-grip thermometers, also enough to place one in every classroom.

Since temperature checks are also required of employees, nearly 700 are performed just during the daily arrival time, noted B.A. Athletic and Facilities Director Pat Collins.

“We do it multiple times, too, because anybody who leaves the school day and  goes and plays athletics, before they go to their practice, they have  another temperature screen, and then those athletes answer the standard COVID questions,” he said.


Mask policies

Unlike those for temperature checks, Bulloch Academy’s rules for protective face coverings are not the same for students as they are for employees.

“Of course, all of my teachers and staff are wearing masks or face shields 100% of the time,” Houghton said.

But parents were given a choice for whether their children will wear them or not and asked to fill out a form. Houghton estimated that 60% to 70% of the upper-school students are wearing masks.

“As you get younger, you have fewer, which is understandable because it’s just very difficult for a young child to understand why they have to have something on their face,” she said.

At first, B.A. faculty members had thought teenagers would be defiant about wearing masks, said Assistant Head of School Holly Greeson.

“But we are so proud of our teenagers,” she said. “It has become a little bit of a fashion statement for some, and that helps.”

Students are asked to bring their own masks, and some are matching them to their outfits. But the school has a supply of disposable masks for a day when a student forgets to bring one.

Bulloch Academy also purchased 525 transparent plastic, three-sided student desk shields. High school teachers had these affixed to desks and left there, with the teachers cleaning them between classes. But middle school teachers decided to have students carry the shields with them from class to class.

Fourth-grade, fifth-grade, and first-grade classes are also using the shields.


No full virtual

Unlike the public Bulloch County Schools system, which will start both traditional, in-person school and virtual instruction Monday, Bulloch Academy has not, at this point, offered a virtual option for all of its students.

School started in a “yellow” or middle level of community spread of coronavirus, Houghton said. Bulloch Academy has a plan to move to all-virtual instruction if the alert were raised to the highest level. But the school is providing virtual instruction to a few students with documented reasons, such as being high-risk themselves or having a high-risk family member at home.

The academy uses the Seesaw virtual instruction program for prekindergarten through first grade. For grades 2-12, video cameras have been ordered, but had not arrived Thursday, to provide livestreaming capability in all classrooms. Then these would be ready if there is a need for entire class or grade to learn from home under quarantine.

To lessen the likelihood, Bulloch Academy’s administration has assigned students to “cohorts” based on mask use, and for middle and upper school also on which sports they play, in an attempt to limit interaction between groups.  Signs and floor stickers encourage six feet of social distancing, and since the school’s classrooms have exterior doors, some students are routed to the outside and some to the hallways during class changes.

Only prekindergarten and kindergarten children now eat lunch in the B.A. cafeteria. All other students take meals back to their classrooms.

“We’re just trying to use all of the tools we can find to protect our students, because the education of these students is the number one reason that we are here, and we feel like we would be doing a disservice to them if we don’t try our best to keep them in school as much as possible,” Houghton said.


Trinity Christian

Trinity Christian School is also taking temperatures of faculty, staff and students when they arrive each morning. Trinity started its new school year Wednesday and as of Friday had not had to turn anyone away, said Headmaster David Lattner.

Trinity does not require masks of anyone, but encourages their use by students and employees. Probably between one-third and one-half of students are wearing them, he said.

The school purchased 25 or more small, portable air purifiers, which use ultraviolet light as well as filtration, and placed one in every classroom. Some UV light wands were also purchased for teachers to pass over keyboards and ChromeBooks between users.

Hand sanitizing stations have been installed throughout Trinity Christian’s facilities, as at BA and other schools. Only half of Trinity’s lockers have been assigned to students, leaving those in-between unused.

Some teachers have purchased or improvised student desk shields for their classrooms.

“We do it as best we can,” Lattner said. “We can’t do six feet of distancing, the rooms just aren’t big enough. But we spread them out as much as we can. We’re allowing the students to eat lunch outside.”

Although TCS classes are small, averaging just 13 or 14 students in elementary grades, many of the classrooms are also relatively small. Some, but not all, are the Sunday school rooms of Trinity Presbyterian Church.

TCS had about 189 students in attendance Friday, down from an enrollment of about 210 last year.

“We had some parents that just weren’t comfortable sending their kids back right now, since we’re not offering a virtual option, Lattner  said.


Bible Baptist

Another church-affiliated school, Bible Baptist Christian Academy, is providing a virtual option. BBCA now has about 115 students, which Administrator Judy Williams said is about the same as last school year. The academy switched to virtual instruction in March to conclude that year, and Bible Baptist operated its separate day care center through the summer, both of which provided some experience for the current situation.

Wide-angle video cameras installed in all BBCA classrooms allow virtual students to participate via Zoom or Google Classroom.

All teachers and staff are required to wear masks, but they are optional for students, as at the other schools.

“To be honest, no, most of our students are not wearing masks,” Williams said.

But staff members now have COVID questions and temperature checks “almost down to a science,” and things have been going smoothly since the start of school Aug. 3, she said.

The lines of cars took a little longer the first day, but a plan for staggered arrival times has helped.

Only about 10 students are currently attending BBCA virtually, but parents like having the option, Williams said.

“Obviously there are challenges with COVID, but our academy has held very strong numbers,” she said.  “They’ve been good because parents understand that they have the virtual option or they have the in-class option, so we feel really good about that.” 

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