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Barrow County schools will resume in-person instruction five days a week starting Monday, Sept. 21, as the county has continued to see lower numbers of coronavirus cases in recent weeks, school district officials announced Tuesday.

After starting the school year entirely online Aug. 17 due to a “substantial” spread level of COVID-19 in the community, the district switched to a hybrid model last week with each grade split into two cohorts as the spread level dropped into the “yellow” zone — a sustained average of 10-24.9 new daily cases per 100,000 people on a two-week rolling average.

District officials had been eyeing a return to five days a week of in-person instruction once the county could get out of the "red" zone (25 or more new daily cases per 100,000 people on a 14-day rolling average) for a sustained period of time. And they had noted in previous school board meetings the county may have had to drop into the “green” zone (less than 10 new daily cases per 100,000 people on the 14-day average) before a full reopening. But they said in a news release Tuesday that they have been encouraged by how students and staff have responded to the precautions in place — mask mandates, social distancing requirements and enhanced cleaning measures — and are comfortable moving forward.

The decision to fully reopen schools still fits within the district’s plans for implementing enhanced mitigation measures during “moderate” community spread, which are based off Georgia Department of Public Health and Georgia Department of Education guidelines, officials noted.

“The past two weeks have shown positive improvement in our local virus community spread levels,” officials said. “Nine of the past 10 days have been in the ‘yellow’ or ‘moderate’ virus spread level. While we are encouraged by this, we implore our community to continue to take steps to help mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus. This will help us to continue in-person learning and avoid school closures.”

According to the latest DPH figures released Tuesday afternoon, 233 new cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in Barrow County over the past two weeks — an average of 16.6 a day or 19.3 per 100,000, putting the county firmly in the “yellow” zone. And while the overall number of tests in the community have been declining, the percentage of positive tests has also dropped into the “yellow” zone — with a decline from 12.2 percent on a seven-day rolling average on Aug. 31 to 10.9 percent on Monday, Sept. 15.

According to the latest available school district data through Sept. 10, a total of 15 students had to be out of school last week either because of a positive coronavirus test or direct exposure to someone with a positive test since Sept. 8, the day in-person learning resumed under the hybrid model. The full number of students who have to go into quarantine because of suspected or direct exposure was not available.

For the week of Sept. 4-10, four teachers or school staffers were out with a positive test, 28 were quarantined due to direct exposure to someone with a positive or suspected case, and 11 were quarantined as a precaution for a suspected case. That overall number of 43 was a little higher than the week before students began returning, but still far below the first week in August when 91 teachers and staffers had to be out, prompting district officials to recommend to the school board starting the year online.

“It is important to understand that while our trend in the Barrow community has been showing signs of improvement, the health crisis is not over,” officials said. “Even while in the hybrid model, we have had to place staff members and students under quarantine. This will no doubt continue to be the case and our public needs to expect that we will be quarantining individuals, groups of staff and students, closing classrooms, and perhaps even entire schools as we continue to work through the impacts that COVID-19 brings to our school system.”

Officials also stressed that individual schools or the entire system could return to a hybrid model at some point depending on conditions as the fall and flu season approaches.

“There will be daily decisions that will have to be made as we move along through the school year,” they said.

All BCSS students who this summer opted for virtual learning will remain in that format, while elementary and middle school students will have the option to switch at the end of the first nine weeks and high school students will be allowed to switch after the first semester. Roughly 26 percent of the district’s students are currently enrolled in distance learning, which will keep schools at around 75-percent capacity on average for the time-being. However, with more students now set to be in closer proximity to each other, particularly in hallways during class transitions, officials are urging them to follow the mask requirements and practice diligent personal hygiene.

Schools will continue to limit and restrict large gatherings such as assemblies, and lunch will continue to be served in classrooms. Breakfast and lunch is free for all students through Dec. 31, as the result of a United States Department of Agriculture waiver, that will limit the handling of cash and time spent in the cafeteria, officials said.

Officials again on Tuesday urged any students who are sick, awaiting test results or have been exposed to someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19 to stay home and self-monitor for symptoms.

The district has had 134 staff members trained through the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Contact Tracing program in an effort to quickly identify possible cases and exposures, according to the release.

“When there is a confirmed case at a school, anyone who has had close contact with a probable or confirmed case will be notified by a phone call,” officials said. “They will also receive a follow-up email confirming the quarantine dates required. If there is a case at a school but your child was not exposed, a letter will be posted on the school's website to make families aware of the situation.”

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