In this year of COVID-19 quarantines and a potential divide between face-to-face students and those learning "virtually" at home, the Bulloch County Schools have pressed on through week six, and at least one school has made "resilience" a watchword for positive behaviors.
Meanwhile, the effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic on the schools may be leveling off but certainly have not disappeared.
A total of 89 cases have appeared among students and school system employees since classes began Aug. 17, and more than 800 precautionary 14-day quarantines of individuals, most of them students, have occurred. As of 4 p.m. Friday, 224 individuals remained quarantined from school, after the number fluctuated again with some new cases.
"It's been a challenging time, but I think everybody has kind of accepted that everything's going to be a fluid situation and is kind of taking it day-by-day," said Dr. Todd Veland, principal of Langston Chapel Middle School.
LCMS has the smallest portion of its students attending in-person of any of the 15 schools in the Bulloch County system. Of the 824 students enrolled at LCMS as of Tuesday, 345, or about 42%, were in face-to-face classes. The other 479 students, or 58%, were participating at home through the virtual learning platform Edgenuity, and with supplemental instruction provided by the school's assigned "virtual teachers."
Meanwhile, Langston Chapel Middle has been also one of the more fortunate schools in the number of its face-to-face students and employees who have had to quarantine. On Aug. 19, just the third day of school, 25 individuals, most or all of them students, were sent home from LCMS to precautionary quarantine after one person was diagnosed with COVID-19.
LCMS had one additional person quarantined the second week of school, but no additional confirmed cases then or since. Quarantined students who showed no symptoms returned to school after 14 days.
Distance and masks
At class change time, students walking through the LCMS central lobby are guided to keep 6 feet apart. An arrangement of arrows and crowd-control ropes channels them toward the walls so that students don't meet in the middle.
Most were wearing face masks Wednesday morning. Veland estimates that 90% to 95% of the students — sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders — wore masks through the first five weeks of school. In week six, he noticed some fading, but estimated that about 85% were still wearing them.
"Ours actually do a really good job," Veland said. "I was very impressed with the kids. But I think mask fatigue is probably setting in right now."
The school system has never required but "strongly encourages" the use of masks, and for that purpose he borrowed and adapted a slogan from the Georgia Southern Eagles. "Blue Devils Do Right" flashed a screen in the school lobby. "Blue Devils Wash Their Hands." "Blue Devils Socially Distance When Possible."
'Ready, ... resilient'
A Coolest Mask Contest is one of the activities promoted by Quincy Hills, LCMS social and emotional learning specialist, as he seeks to encourage positive behaviors and have students — face-to-face and virtual — feel that they are part of one school family and culture.
Not every school has a social and emotional learning specialist, and it's a new position at LCMS. In this role, Hills, who is also the school's head boys basketball and track coach and an assistant football coach, "works with students on conflict resolution, building relationships with their teachers and highlighting and showcasing positive behaviors," he said.
One of the tools is a program of "positive office referrals," for which teacher teams select one student from each grade each week for recognition. These students are sent to the office for positive things they have done, instead of misbehavior, and have their pictures taken.
In a similar effort, individual teachers award "positive behavior tickets," and a drawing is held once a week for three winning virtual students, one from each grade level, and three face-to-face students. Hills features photos and names of all these honorees in the LCMS "Family Forever" newsletter posted each Sunday to Facebook and Twitter, as well as the school's website.
The honorees are selected for meeting any of the school's "three behavior expectations ... being ready, being responsible and being resilient," Hills said. Those words, "ready, responsible, resilient" appear in several places on the website.
LCMS has also begun to name, once each month, a "World Champion Student" and a "World Champion Educator." They receive massive, pro-wrestler-style championship belts and, of course, have their pictures taken.
The first educator so recognized was virtual-program eighth-grade physical science teacher Debbie Van Otteren. She works with 209 students, not only from LCMS but also from William James Middle School. These at-home students do their coursework mainly on the Edgenuity platform, where they see a pre-recorded teacher who isn't from Bulloch County and participate in "virtual labs."
But Van Otteren monitors the program to make sure they stay on track. She provides remediation and enrichment activities and contacts parents and students as needed. Often, their virtual meetings are set up using Google Meets. These meetings are voluntary, but the weekly quizzes are required.
She also has regular, virtual office hours available to students and parents.
Together, Van Otteren and Southeast Bulloch Middle School teacher Cindy Mott serve all of the virtual eighth-grade physical science students in the four middle schools. Van Otteren usually works from home, but they have teamed up to video-record some experiments and demonstrations in her lab at LCMS.
Will these students be on track with those taking the same subject face-to-face?
"That is the hope," Van Otteren said. "You know, we lose a little bit with not being able to do the hands-on, but as far as the information that we're giving them, the curriculum, it's very close to the same."
Meanwhile, LCMS eighth-grade math teacher Valyncia Wooten said she is excited to be back in her classroom, where she loves to be, working with students face-to-face. The room is set up to provide as much distance between students as possible, and she wipes down desktops and other contact points with sanitizer between classes.
"So far the kids have been very resilient in their adapting to the new norm of how school is," Wooten said.
Stilson Elementary School, where 293 of the 423 students, or 69%, are designated as attending face-to-face, was harder hit by COVID-19 cases early on. With six cases reported the second week of school, 63 people went home for 14-day precautionary quarantines, followed by two additional cases and one person quarantined the third week.
"It was challenging, but our teachers pivoted quickly while showing great flexibility and resilience," Stilson Principal Leigh Baker said in a reply email this week. "The courage and professionalism our teachers have shown during these unprecedented times is amazing. They come to school focused on their students' learning and doing their very best for children each and every day."
Stilson Elementary has had no new cases since the third week.
Down, not done
As a district, Bulloch County Schools had six confirmed cases the first week, 23 the second week, 21 the third week, 14 the fourth week, 12 the fifth week and, as of 4 p.m. Friday, 13 cases during the sixth week of school.
This week's cases occurred at Langston Chapel Elementary, Mill Creek Elementary, Southeast Bulloch Middle, Statesboro High and William James Middle School.
Of the eight Bulloch County Board of Education members, none was more reluctant than District 5's Glennera Martin to open the schools in mid-August with a face-to-face option. Phoned earlier this week, she noted that the death toll from COVID-19 in the community has continued to rise, and mentioned the recent deaths of two people she knew.
The youngest person to die of the disease in Bulloch County was 36, but Martin mentioned one student who had been hospitalized. She also noted that flu season is approaching, and said the schools are still in "a no-win situation."
"I did want everybody virtual, and I kind of still want that, but if we can maintain as it is with fewer number of students encountering the virus, I can say, well they're trying, but I just think we're not there yet, and I'm afraid what might happen when it's getting colder," Martin said.