The number of COVID-19 cases reported among Bulloch County Schools students and employees last week, 331, was the most yet. Roughly that many individuals are isolating away from face-to-face school. More individuals – an exact number has not been determined – are away on optional, precautionary quarantines.
Week 1 of the current school year, Aug. 2-7, the schools reported 67 cases, so the Week 2 count brought the school system’s COVID-19 count for the two weeks to 398 cases. Last school year, all year, the total was 652 school-connected cases.
At this point, officials are not making any further changes after Superintendent Charles Wilson, consulting with the Southeast Health District of the Georgia Department of Public Health, raised the school system’s coronavirus defense status to “High Spread” last Thursday. That brought changes in where students eat school meals, restrictions on recess, the elimination of most field trips and enhancement of cleaning and disinfecting practices for buildings and buses. Facemasks are again “strongly encouraged.”
Interviewed Monday, Wilson said that he and the Board of Education have no plans for a shift to virtual schooling, a temporary school shutdown or a mask mandate at any certain number of cases.
“We’re trying to keep our schools open, and so there are no predetermined ideas on when we would close it down. We’re just going to continue to work through it and we’ve given people a lot of flexibility to be able to do that,” Wilson said.
He said he has received information, but doesn’t know just as nobody really does, that the current surge in cases may last about three weeks. He also noted that Georgia Southern University is now back in session. Last August, a surge in COVID cases, the most that Bulloch County had seen until that time, began just after the university and the Bulloch County Schools resumed classes and began to subside after about three weeks.
For this fall, the school system’s leaders have tried to position themselves “to be in a fluid environment because this could come and go for us on and off, and I think everybody agrees our students need to be back in school,” Wilson said.
Few chose virtual
One way that was done was by offering an overhauled virtual instruction program, this time with local teachers planning lessons for real-time online class meetings, as an option for students and their families.
“So we tried to position ourselves and gave the community an option to enroll in the virtual program. … That opportunity was open through July 30th, and most people chose to come back face-to-face knowing there could be a resurgence,” Wilson said.
Teachers and staff members were assigned based on how many students registered, he noted. With currently only about 400 students, the virtual program was assigned 45 teachers before the beginning of the school year. Administrators intended for families to make a full year’s commitment to the program so as to avoid having to shift teachers between face-to-face and virtual instruction.
“We recognize that everybody is in a very difficult situation right now and we’re very sensitive to that,” Wilson said. “We have a lot of people being impacted by that, but we’re incremental and we’re trying to move forward. When students are out sick, we’re trying to provide them the option for distance learning. We’re trying to work with our teachers on that.”
The school district makes a distinction between the virtual program, which is for students who were signed up in advance, and “distance learning” for face-to-face students who get sick or go into optional quarantines. Distance learning is provided, mostly using Google Classroom resources, by the students’ face-to-face teachers.
“Our position is still that we’re not going to implement a mask mandate,” Wilson said. “We are continuing to encourage people to wear masks, especially if they’re in close proximity to others, and again I’m going to come back to, if someone is coughing or is sick, we’re encouraging people to stay home.”
Wilson said he realizes that children under age 12 cannot get vaccinated but that school officials are also encouraging everyone who can to get vaccinated. He noted that information about where vaccinations are available is provided on the school system website.
Bulloch County Schools would have more students out of face-to-face school right now except for a change in its infectious disease protocols made the first week of school. Citing an easing of quarantine requirements by the Department of Public Health that allowed this, Wilson and staff made quarantining optional for students and employees who come into close contact with a COVID-19 case while at school but do not show symptoms themselves.
Quarantine rate 39%
Beginning last Thursday, staff members starting looking at how many parents are choosing to quarantine students at home after reported close contacts at school.
“Right now it looks like we’re at about 39 percent of students who are choosing to quarantine, and the rest are not,” said Hayley Greene, the Bulloch County Schools public relations director.
“That’s just an early look,” she said. “That’s certainly not exact data; that’s an estimate, based on how many have requested distance learning and were absent on Friday.”
Along with those 331 positive cases, the weekly COVID-19 report that Greene posts online each Sunday showed the reported number of “close contacts” among school student students last week was 3,193. If those were actual separate individuals at school, they would be 25% of the school system’s combined on-campus population of 12,704, which includes 10,685 students and 2,019 employees.
However, that number includes also includes off-campus contacts of those cases, and not all of the cases are among people who actually came to school ill, according to Greene.
“Those are cases that occur at school but it’s also cases that are happening in the community, so the close contact doesn’t necessarily happen at the school. Close contact could happen in the community,” she said.
“It’s also important to note that those close contacts, that’s not individual people,” Greene added. “So you could have a situation, and we do have situations, where a student or employee is a close contact more than once in a week. Particularly with teachers at the middle and high school level where the kids are changing classes, you could have someone that is a close contact to more than one case in a day.”
In other words, some individuals show up as more than one “contact” in the count.
The 331 individuals with positive cases, who are “isolated” away from school rather than “quarantined” make up about 2.6 percent of the face-to-face school population, including students and employees. Greene did not have student attendance numbers available. But she reported that as of Monday, there were 113 employees who had requested leave, not all for COVID-19 but for “any reason” including “sickness, medical procedure, care for a sick family member.”
That’s 5.5% of the school system’s total workforce of 2,065.
“Schools have the necessary staff to operate and safely instruct and supervise children,” Greene replied in an email. “As we did last year, we continuously monitor our schools and communicate with principals as to the daily operations in their buildings. Our administrators are committed to keeping schools open, and at times that may mean temporarily adjusting practices, but no school is currently at a critical point that would warrant closing a school.”
Screven goes virtual
Not all area school systems are plowing through with the Bulloch County district’s resolve. The Screven County Schools in Sylvania announced that they will close to in-person instruction from Thursday, Aug. 19 through Labor Day, with plans to reopen Sept. 7. Until then, masks are required for staff and students Tuesday and Wednesday, with excused absences for any students who do not attend.
The Screven schools will begin implementing their Digital Learning Plan next Monday.