Contrary to apparent recent rumors, the Barrow County School System is not actively planning to move to online-only instruction between Thanksgiving and Christmas, though that could be an option if the local coronavirus situation deteriorates to levels that might trigger school closures, superintendent Chris McMichael said Tuesday, Oct. 27.
Addressing the board of education at the end of its work session and called meeting, McMichael said he and school district officials were aware of the chatter but said the plan for now is to keep the schools open and continue with the mitigation measures it has had in place since students began returning to campuses for instruction Sept. 8.
“We’re holding pretty steady right now,” McMichael said. “If it gets worse and we start seeing more spread, that might be the plan (to move classes back 100-percent online). It’s a dangerous time in some ways. We’re in a good spot, but we’re also watching the numbers very closely.”
On Thursday, Oct. 29, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported 11 newly-confirmed COVID-19 cases in Barrow County, bringing the cumulative total of cases in the county since the onset of the pandemic to 2,631. Fifty-one county residents have died, with the most recent death occurring Oct. 16, according to DPH data.
Barrow County’s number of new daily cases has remained steady in recent weeks, and its 14-day average from Oct. 16-29 was 15.4 new daily cases per 100,000 people — keeping the county firmly in the “yellow zone” with “moderate” community spread, but well below the previous peak in numbers in mid-to-late summer that led the district to begin its year entirely online Aug. 17 before starting to phase in the return of students to classrooms. About 26 percent of the district’s more than 14,000 students opted to remain in virtual learning, either for the first semester or first nine weeks.
The district would likely not make a move back to 100-percent virtual learning unless the spread escalated back into the “red zone” with 25 or more new daily cases per 100,000 people consistently. Officials have maintained a cautiously optimistic tone, though the state of Georgia has seen a rise over the past month in its seven-day rolling average of new cases since a low point in early October.
While Georgia’s current situation is not as severe as it was in the summer, the U.S. has seen record-breaking numbers of daily infections, particularly in the Midwest and western states, and public health experts have expressed concerns those trends are working their way into Georgia and have urged people to continue to be diligent about mask-wearing, social distancing and hygiene with the traditional flu season and much cooler weather on the way.
DPH reported 123 public COVID-19 outbreaks around the state from Oct. 18-24 — an increase of 30 from the previous week — and officials said schools were among the leading settings for those outbreaks.
“These outbreaks are occurring in settings where people are physically congregating and underscore the need for physical distancing and source control,” officials said in a news release.
In Barrow County, the school district has enacted a mask-wearing mandate on its campuses, put in increased social-distancing measures and limited attendance at athletic events and school functions.
The district also has some 140 employees who have been trained through a Johns Hopkins University contact-tracing program in an attempt to stem the spread and prevent any major outbreaks at its schools.
“It is a fallback plan (to go back to online-only learning) that if things were to get back up into the red zone and cause that, that would be a good time for that,” McMichael said, “but we really don’t want to do that and we will do everything we can to try to keep us out of doing that. We’re in fairly decent shape.”
The district, every Thursday, has been providing weekly data to the public on the number of students and employees impacted by the coronavirus. According to the latest data released Thursday, Oct. 28, five students tested positive for COVID-19 from Oct. 22-28, another student was quarantined due to a “probable” case, and 58 students were quarantined as a precaution due to direct contact with someone with a confirmed-positive or probable case. During the same timeframe, four staff members tested positive, three were quarantined as a “probable” case and 13 were quarantined due to direct contact with someone with a positive or suspected case.
Fifty-eight students were kept out of or sent home from school Monday, Oct. 26, including 20 from Winder-Barrow High School, 19 from Apalachee High School and 18 at Haymon-Morris Middle School.
The reported overall number of students impacted for the week (70) was down from 89 the previous week (when seven students tested positive), 104 from Oct. 8-14 and 276 from Oct. 1-7.
Since the start of the academic year Aug. 17, the district has reported 35 confirmed cases among students quarantined 765 additional students for precautionary reasons. Since July 27, 57 employees have tested positive and 359 have quarantined as a precaution, though the district has not been in a situation, since the academic year began, where so many teachers have been out of school that it has had to temporarily close a campus.
“It’s not great that anyone is dealing (with COVID-19), but those aren’t astronomical numbers for a district our size at this point,” McMichael said.