While welcoming more than 96% of their students back to traditional, face-to-face instruction, Bulloch County’s schools may be seeing some growth in enrollment as the 2021-22 school year begins.
At Langston Chapel Middle School, new Principal Kelia Francis reported Monday morning that things were flowing smoothly and that she was seeing many more students in person than last year. LCMS is also one of eight schools, out of the Bulloch County district’s total of 15, that have principals who are new at the helm this year. But none of the “new” principals are entirely new to Bulloch County Schools. Francis, now in her 20th year as an educator, was an assistant principal at LCMS last year.
“Compared to last year our enrollment has increased,” she said. “We are at about 800-plus students. … A majority of our students are back in face-to-face instruction, and we are following the district protocol.”
A district report at the end of the day counted 720 students in face-to-face attendance at Langston Chapel Middle School, but attendance usually doesn’t reach its maximum the first day and often fluctuates for a week or more. Official statewide counts are taken in October and March.
Last fall, LCMS’ official full-time equivalent student count on Oct. 6 was 824, but about 60% of those students were then participating “virtually” from home. Before the COVID-19 pandemic gave school system leaders a reason to consider a virtual option, the school had counted 783 students in October 2019 and 710 in October 2018.
Not 11,000 yet
District-wide, the Bulloch County Schools had 10,749 students in prekindergarten through 12th grade enrolled and counted present Monday, Public Relations Director Hayley Greene reported at the end of the day. That included 10,325 students attending face-to-face and just 424 participating virtually from home. Last year, 10,697 students were counted on the first day of school.
As of last week, the enrollment total stood at 11,184, the most ever, and attendance may still recover to exceed 11,000. But Monday, school administrators started counting absent students as “no shows” and will only add them back to the enrollment when they come to school, Greene said.
In preparing for the new term, the school system had added two portable classroom units at Southeast Bulloch Middle School and one at Brooklet Elementary School, in addition to replacing two at Langston Chapel Elementary School.
“But that was growth we’d been planning for,” Superintendent of Schools Charles Wilson said Monday morning, after he greeted reporters for interviews in the Langston Chapel Elementary lobby. “The growth that we’re experiencing right now is something we’re going to have to evaluate and reassess and adjust around.”
Last year’s special arrangements may have allowed student population growth occurring to go “off the radar,” he said, in regard to noticeable patterns.
He and his staff and the Bulloch County Board of Education saw enough of a pattern earlier this year to add the construction of a new, larger Southeast Bulloch High School to the district’s five-year facilities plan. But the new school is at least two years from becoming a reality.
SEB’s traffic problem
The Southeast Bulloch High School and Middle School area was the location of Monday’s longest reported first-day traffic delays. Some parents waited 40 or 45 minutes on Brooklet-Denmark Road, and a traffic jam occurred as far away as a Georgia Route 67 intersection, Greene and Wilson noted.
“We appreciate parents being involved in our schools, and I know everybody wants to get there, but it would really help if people would carpool or have students ride buses,” Wilson said. “The congestion in that area is just bad.”
He is discussing possible changes with the school resource officers from the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office while seeing how the situation works out this first week, he said.
Bus driver shortage
Meanwhile, some school bus delays occurred in various locations.
“We had like four, maybe five late buses, but I think they were within half an hour, and that had to do with just some basic mechanical problems, but the biggest challenge we’re having on transportation right now is we don’t have much backup,” Wilson said. “Finding drivers is always a problem.”
With the school system operating 101 bus routes, four buses had to run double-routes because of a shortage of drivers, and all available substitutes were driving, he said.
Inside the schools, Wilson said things returned to what he had described last week as “a new and improved normal” after the COVID-19 pandemic conditions of the past 18 months. But Bulloch’s return to having almost all of its students in face-to-face classrooms occurs while some other area school systems have announced mask mandates and are again delaying school because of a resurgence in the number of COVID cases.
One year ago, but after a delay to mid-August, fewer than half of the usual number of desks at some of Bulloch County’s schools were occupied after 44% of students’ families chose the virtual option. This year, a revamped virtual program, led by two administrators and with 45 local teachers assigned to produce their own lessons, was offered, but the number of students enrolled in it actually decreased from 449 on July 19 to the 424 at the close of registration Friday.
Cafeterias and clubs
For face-to-face instruction, the “district protocol” that Francis mentioned includes an emphasis on sanitation practices, including reminding students to wash their hands, with signs in the restrooms. Hand sanitizer remains available at various locations in schools.
“One Way” arrow markings and lines applied to hallway floors, reportedly in all of the schools, remind students to keep to the right and maintain some distance when passing one another. But some of last year’s social-distancing efforts have vanished.
“This year our kids will actually eat in the cafeteria, which is a change,” Francis said. “Last year, the students had to eat their lunch in the classrooms.”
After a year when clubs became inactive because they were not allowed to meet in person after school, extracurricular groups are also returning in force to Langston Chapel Middle with some new additions, including a Chess Club and a STEM Club, she noted. Other LCMS clubs expected to be active this year include the Junior Beta Club, Men of Distinction, a Step Team, the Student Council, and a Student Mentor Group and Student Leadership Group.
Under the district’s “Return to School Plan” for dealing with illness and infections, face masks are encouraged but not required in schools or on buses.
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.