The Barrow County school board voted 7-2 Monday to delay the start of school by two weeks to Aug. 17 amid the coronavirus pandemic and a recent spike in infections in the county and across Georgia.

The school board had voted earlier this month to start school on Aug. 4 as originally planned with options for in-person and virtual learning. But at the recommendation of superintendent Chris McMichael, the board changed course Monday night. Students will still have in-person and virtual-learning options, and McMichael said 3,790 students (more than 20 percent of the student population) had signed up for virtual learning for the fall semester.

“That was quite a bit more than we were expecting,” McMichael said. He added that he made the recommendation to push back the start date two weeks to allow more time for all of the personal-protective and technology equipment the system has ordered to arrive; to allow for teachers to have more time for pre-planning; and to give custodians more training on thorough cleaning of facilities to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Teachers will still report Monday, July 27, for pre-planning, but the extra two weeks will also give the district and its teachers more time to develop an emergency plan for 100-percent virtual learning in case any future orders by Gov. Brian Kemp dictate that public schools be closed for any length of time.

“What we all dread down the road is if we have to go 100-percent virtual, but we need our teachers to be prepared,” McMichael said. “We want a very structured program. We did the best we could, and for the most part I think our teachers did a phenomenal job with it (for the final two months of the 2019-20 school year), but we didn’t get a chance to structure it.

“We want everyone to have as close to a normal education experience as we can. We want to give them the best chance at that.”

Barrow County did not go as far with its delay as school boards in surrounding counties have. Gwinnett County and Fulton County schools have opted to implement all-virtual learning for the fall semester, while Clarke County schools postponed their start date last week to Sept. 8. Elsewhere, Jefferson schools are still on schedule to return July 31, while Jackson County has been delayed until Aug. 12. Oconee County’s school board voted Monday to stick with its original start date and, like Barrow, is offering options for in-person and virtual learning.

Under the new Barrow school calendar that was approved Monday, the district will have the same number of instructional days — unlike Clarke County, for example, which is cutting its number of instructional days back by around 20. McMichael said he was not comfortable going past Aug. 17 for a start date.

“Our children need to be in school if at all possible,” he said. “This is a different world for us, but as educators we’re going to soldier on and do the best we can.”

Barrow is making up the gap by eliminating a fall break in October and a couple of other previously-scheduled off days. The first semester will still end Dec. 18 and the second semester is scheduled to begin Jan. 11, while spring break is still set for April 5-9. The last of school remains May 26, with high school graduations set for May 26 at Apalachee and May 27 at Winder-Barrow. 

Like the rest of the state, Barrow County has had to grapple with constantly-changing data and criticism from parents and community members from all angles — several warning against the consequences of returning to school while the virus is still spreading and others about the various impacts on students and their families of not having in-person school.

“As a board, we’re here to serve our community. We’ve received a lot of emails and there’s been a lot of passion in them,” board member Bill Ritter said. “(The district has) done a great job formulating a plan that I think is going to be approved of by most of the community. We’re on the right track and I’m pleased with this decision.”

The plan was met with some pushback, though, on the board — from those voting for and against it.

Garey Huff, who was joined in opposition by Stephanie Bramlett, said the board should have been given the option to vote on starting the year with 100-percent virtual learning.

“COVID cases are rising rapidly. There seems to be no end in sight with where we’re heading on that,” Huff said, citing increasingly-crowded hospitals in northeast Georgia and other parts of the state. “I think we’re going to potentially overwhelm the system with sickness in the schools. I think it’s inevitable that we’re going to go to virtual learning. …This is one of the most important decisions we’ll make as a board. This is not only affecting students, and I understand they won’t learn nearly as well if they’re at home, but we’re affecting people’s lives and health. We’re affecting children’s lives and health.”

But chair Lynn Stevens rejected Huff’s idea of 100-percent virtual learning. She voted in favor of McMichael’s recommendation but said she would only support it with the assurance that the district would be committing to offering in-person instruction, absent any contrary orders from the state.

Stevens, who said she was “extremely disappointed in the board,” said students had been away from a classroom setting for too long and noted they wouldn’t be as susceptible to the worst effects of the virus as older age groups. She also said being out of school would have a negative psychological impact on all students and an even more detrimental effect on those and their families who are socioeconomically disadvantaged.

“Our job is to educate children and we cannot do that if they’re not in the classroom,” Stevens said. “…If we can’t do that, I don’t know why we’re here. We’ve got people classified as ‘essential’ working in grocery stores and Walmart, but we can’t figure out a way to safely teach our kids?

“You cannot let fear dictate what we do.”

McMichael said the adopted calendar gives the district the most flexibility to adjust to an all-virtual format if necessary.

“We’re trying to be as nimble as possible,” he said. “Nobody involved in education likes change but it’s where we are.”

While the district still plans to require mask-wearing on school buses and other crowded areas and among staffers, it still is not planning on a mandate that all students who are able to wear masks wear them at all times.

“It’s disappointing to me we’re not enforcing the wearing of masks at all times,” Huff said. “I think that’s the least we can do to try to slow down the spread of this virus. I can’t imagine we’re not going to see a tremendous rise in cases (with the reopening), and I think that’s a minimum thing we should be doing.”

Also under the plan approved Monday, the district will plan on having student orientations at each school during the week of Aug. 10-14 while spreading out the number of students who attend at a time. Students planning to attend school in-person are asked to attend the orientation with one parent and will be placed in small groups to meet their teachers, see their classrooms and participate in a short health and safety training session. Students participating in distance learning will have a digital orientation the same week.

District officials said more details about the orientations will be emailed to students and families prior to Aug. 10.

McMichael again stressed that as more updated pandemic information comes along, the schedule could change once again.

Bramlett said she favored the most stability for families as possible and asked that the community be “respectful” of the board and the district as it wades it way through the situation.

“Everybody is doing the very best they can,” Bramlett said. “We’re going to have to give each other some grace.”

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