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The Barrow County Board of Education voted Wednesday, Aug. 5, during a called meeting to begin the 2020-21 school year entirely online Aug. 17 as coronavirus infections continue to rise throughout the community and have had a significant impact on the school district’s staff since they returned for pre-planning exercises last week — causing more than 90 teachers and staff to quarantine at home during that span.

The board’s decision comes just two weeks after it voted to delay the start of school by two weeks to Aug. 17 with options for in-person and virtual learning. But it also served as a reminder of the volatile nature of the COVID-19 pandemic that has frustrated educators, parents and students alike.

Though precautions were put in place and every staff member at each school was required to wear a mask for pre-planning, 16 have since tested positive for COVID-19 and there are 75 others either with a suspected case or who have had direct exposure to someone who has tested positive for the virus, according to superintendent Chris McMichael.

“We’re really at an emergency level with our staffing right now,” McMichael said, adding that the 91 figure represents roughly 5.6 percent of the district’s staff. Comparatively, when it was reported last week that the Gwinnett County school district had 260 employees out, that was about 2 percent of its staff, McMichael said.

“That’s really concerning to us,” he said. “If we had planned to start school back Monday (as originally scheduled), we would have been hard-pressed to do so.”

And while there are roughly 150 substitute teachers on the district’s list, McMichael said having enough committed to come in for 14 days while the regular staffers were in quarantine would be an issue, as well as students losing two full weeks of instruction with their regular teacher — whereas virtual instruction would allow those teachers who are not critically ill to continue on with their classes.

McMichael and other district heads also made the recommendation to the school board because the rate of daily new infections in the county per 100,000 people on a rolling 14-day average has reached a threshold of substantial community spread. Officials said they are taking the daily coronavirus data from the Georgia Department of Public Health and using an internationally-recognized model from Harvard University to put those numbers into context.

Barrow County’s 14-day average on Wednesday for daily new cases per 100,000 people was 28, above the 25-mark which places it into the “red” category — where it has been since July 28 after spending most of July in the “yellow” category and most of June in the “green” category. While the state department of education has offered conflicting guidance on school districts basing reopening decisions off community spread, Barrow County has stuck to the model in its decisions, officials said.

“We’ve just been hoping for the last five or six days that we were going to see a downward decline, and unfortunately we’ve been pretty steady,” said Matt Thompson, the district’s director of student and data services. He said the county didn’t fare any better in terms of rates in other models, and noted that a lag in testing and a significant percentage of asymptomatic people with COVID-19 have further complicated efforts to stem the spread of the virus.

HARD DECISION

The board voted 6-3 in favor of McMichael’s recommendation after more than an hour of discussion and at-times heated exchanges, though board members and superintendent were unanimously in agreement that they would rather be starting the year in person.

It was the latest decision in a piecemeal approach across northeast Georgia and the entire state as school districts have been left to make their own reopening benchmarks and decisions amid a lack of firm direction from the state department of education and a bevy of mixed messages from the Trump administration and members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force on when and how to reopen school doors.

“I think we can all agree we want our kids to go to school; all of us do,” said board member Stephanie Bramlett, who voted in favor of the recommendation. “And the numbers are not as reliable as we would like them to be, but I think we are bound by responsibility to follow the recommendations of the CDC. All of the opinion aside and just focusing on what we know we have to focus on…we cannot fully staff our schools right now. And it doesn’t matter if we want our kids to go to school or not.”

Added board member Lisa Maloof, who also voted in favor: “Our parents want our kids back. They need to be with their teachers, and the teachers want to be with them. The number of cases within our system concerns me. If we brought the students back (Aug. 17), what would happen then? We don’t want to go back a week and then have to shut down. I like the idea of giving them a few weeks virtually to see what happens. We don’t want to send our students and staff back and put them in an unsafe situation. That’s unfair to them.”

The three members in opposition — chair Lynn Stevens, Beverly Kelley and Jordan Raper — along with others pointed to several potential consequences of not having children in school.

Kelley noted that in addition to the strain that closing schools places on working parents, more children from less-stable homes would be more susceptible to child abuse if they’re not at school for teachers and counselors to spot potential cases of neglect and abuse.

Raper said the district should make every effort it can to get students in the early grades in classrooms as quickly as possible to prevent further delays in their foundational learning.

“We should try to use all of our resources to put an emphasis on the K-3 grade levels,” he said. “That is where a teacher is teaching you how to add, teaching you how to read. A teacher can’t do that virtually. They need to have that kid in front of them.”

Stevens pointed to the lower levels of death and severe illness COVID-19 has caused in children so far and repeated her statement from previous meetings that the district should find a way to reopen safely.

“There’s got to be a way to get around this. Maybe we talk with retired teachers who might be willing to come back for a time,” Stevens said. “The fact that we’re having personnel problems does not solve one single problem of one single child here who’s been out of school since March. There is damage being done. They’re already five months behind, folks. I’m sorry, it just doesn’t make sense.

“This is not a COVID-19 issue; it’s a personnel issue. As a board, we should be about leadership. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think we can figure it out.”

But board member Garey Huff, a medical doctor, rejected that characterization and said Stevens was “turning this around and making it something it’s not.”

“If it weren’t for COVID-19, we would not have a personnel issue,” Huff said. “We would not be discussing this if it weren’t for this worldwide pandemic. I can’t believe you’re trying to push that down our throat.”

Huff, who at a board meeting last month suggested the district should start the year entirely online, said a lack of leadership in the state and nationwide — and behavior among people in general — has placed local school systems in a difficult situation.

“We’ve not had anyone step up and really help us (the public) manage this pandemic and we’ve sort of been left to our devices, and we’ve failed,” Huff said. “We’ve got a part of society that is not paying much attention to this virus and not understanding the implications of this pandemic. Perhaps we can get the message across that if we’re going to get the community back on the right track, we’re going to have to do some hard things.

“If they want the economy back on track, the kids back in the classroom, we’ve got to encourage the community as a whole to get behind this effort.”

PHASED APPROACH TO REOPENING

Several board members said, with the district’s decision, officials must now put a firm educational plan in place and establish some clear benchmarks for reopening.

“At this point, we’ve got to create some stability so our families can make a plan and then rally together and make this the very best it can be,” Bramlett said of the online learning plan. “Our teachers need us, our families need us, but more than anything our children need us. None of us like this. I hate this. This is devastating, but I believe we can pull together and make this what it has to be.”

McMichael said in contrast to March — when the district had no time to plan for a comprehensive, full online-learning approach before Gov. Brian Kemp closed Georgia’s public schools for the remainder of the academic year — he was confident that teachers would have a strong plan in place after months of preparation and training.

As for when schools might reopen, McMichael unveiled a draft plan Wednesday that would stagger returns by grade level, but said that schools would only begin reopening once the community spread level has dropped back into the “yellow” category and lower for a sustained period of time.

While some board members pushed McMichael to provide a target date, Huff said doing so would be unwise, given the uncertainty of the pandemic.

“A mistake we can make is making promises we can’t keep. The virus doesn’t play by our rules and it doesn’t play by our calendar,” Huff said. “I don’t think (McMichael) has the power to flatten the curve, and he doesn’t have the power to predict the future. (Announcing a drop-dead date) would put us in jeopardy of promising something we can’t follow through on.”

Added McMichael: “I know this issue has become politicized and I’m sorry this happened to our country. But if you look at the rise in this community…the numbers are the numbers. That’s a huge rise.

“I don’t know if it’s going to stop if we don’t do things differently.”

OTHER DECISIONS TO COME

In a news release, district officials said more announcements on student laptop requests and distribution, meals, updated orientation plans, and other information will be made later this week.

The board did not discuss how the superintendent’s recommendation and its vote would affect the fall high school sports season, which is getting underway this week.

The Georgia High School Association announced last month that the start of the football regular season would be delayed by two weeks to Sept. 4 but that other fall sports would continue on their regular schedule. However, GHSA executive director Robin Hines and his medical advisory council met Wednesday with Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s public health commissioner, who has expressed concerns about football and competitive cheerleading taking place this fall, along with other large-group activities such as band and chorus.

No immediate decisions regarding fall sports were announced by the GHSA after that meeting. Hines told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he wouldn’t have any more to say until he meets with the association’s board of trustees, but that he felt “cautiously optimistic” about the fall seasons.

To this point, the GHSA has largely left the decision up to local school districts. Barrow County has canceled fall sports at the middle school level but has been moving forward with its high school sports. The various high school teams have had several safety precautions in place, and the district had no positive tests reported among student-athletes and coaches between July 14-31, according to the latest-available numbers. But that period also did not account for Aug. 1 — the date football teams were allowed to begin full-contact practices — and since then.

Al Darby, the district’s chief administrative officer for athletics and student affairs, said after Wednesday night’s meeting that the athletic contests for the Barrow high schools scheduled for this week and the immediate future remained on as of now, but he cautioned that could change at any time.

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