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Friday marks return to school: Districts announce COVID mitigation plans

Students will return to the hallways of all three school systems in the county this Friday, July 30.

The start of the school year comes as the area begins to see an uptick in COVID cases as the Delta variant of the virus spreads.

The county had 12 new COVID-19 cases on July 26, bringing a rolling 7-day average to 10.7 new cases per day. The month prior on June 26, only one new case was reported and the rolling 7-day average was 0.7 new cases per day.

In Jackson County, 37% of residents have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine and 34% are fully vaccinated. That’s below the state average and below the average of the majority of the counties in the Northeast Georgia RESA coverage area.

Here’s what the Commerce City, Jackson County and Jefferson City school systems are planning for:


During a special called Jackson County Board of Education meeting July 23 to approve last-minute personnel items, superintendent April Howard said the system is seeing some COVID cases in students and staff.

“We are going to put in place some mitigation strategies, strongly encouraging masks and asking folks if they will wear masks,” said Howard. “That will help us to potentially eliminate the quarantine for them.”

Friday’s board of education meeting shows how quickly the COVID-19 situation can change. Three weeks ago, district leaders were preparing for a “more normal” start to the school year. But over the past couple of weeks, Jackson County has seen an uptick in its COVID cases.

“Our principals have worked hard this summer to really build everybody up and prepare to launch an amazing school year and I know they’re still going to do that. But I have to say that it was a little bit of a gut punch when we realized that we’re probably going to be experiencing some of the same types of environments,” Howard said.

Howard added the mitigation strategies will be in line with surrounding districts in the Northeast Georgia RESA, but noted that low county vaccination rates may force the school system to increase mitigation strategies sooner.

“I will say that it’s important that we recognize that Jackson County has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the region and so we may be in a position to have to increase our mitigation strategies at an earlier time than others,” said Howard.

In an email July 26, county school system leaders announced a number of guidelines the district will implement in the upcoming school year. Masks will be encouraged. Those who don't feel well are asked to stay home. JCSS plans to continue to follow state and federal recommendations that address appropriate protocols for sanitation, handwashing and respiratory etiquette.

"JCSS encourages our school community to continue to make smart, informed decisions about their health. This important health issue will continue to evolve and these guidelines will adapt and change as needed," the email concluded.


Commerce City School System superintendent Joy Tolbert outlined the following plans for the start of the upcoming school year:

•masks will be optional for students.

•limited social distancing will be in place.

•all students will return for in-person classes, with one exception: Medically fragile students have the option of remote learning.

•enhanced cleaning procedures are in place.

The district plans to continue tracking COVID-19 cases as it did during the previous 2020-21 school year.

According to a draft of the district’s protocols, additional mitigation strategies would be implemented if schools reach over 1% positive within any 7-day period. If that happens, the schools could increase safety measures and communication efforts and reinstate traditional mandated quarantine procedures for close contacts.


Jefferson City School System superintendent Donna McMullan said the school system will continue many of its COVID-19 protocols, some of which include:

•enhanced cleaning

•social distancing as much as possible

•masks encouraged

•limited visitors inside buildings.

“Our principals have redesigned the COVID-19 flex plans to include additional mitigation strategies that can be phased in as necessary based on the number of positive cases in the school, community, and across the state. These strategies may be implemented at the classroom, school, or district level as needed,” said McMullan.

McMullan said the district plans to follow each school’s 7-day rolling average, along with local and state data, when determining any needed adjustments.

Planners give nod for event space, farm winery

Jackson County planners gave their nod recently to allow a “growing” industry to locate in Commerce.

The Jackson County Planning Commission approved a special use request on July 22 from Gary Wiseman for 61.15 acres at 140 Garretts Way. The request will now go to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners for a hearing and vote on Aug. 16.

Wiseman requested a special use to allow wedding/special occasion events and ultimately a farm winery to include wine production, tastings and wine sales.

“We would like to be able to host very intimate, very family-oriented events and select wine tastings,” he said.

Wiseman noted they’ve aimed to be good stewards of the overall 150-acre property and have worked with the Georgia Forestry Commission to get a long-term forest stewardship plan in place. During that process, they found muscadine vines on the property.

“When we were spraying as part of our stewardship plan, we found a lot of muscadine vines scattered throughout the property,” said Wiseman. “…It was at that point that we came up with the idea to try to grow muscadine vines on a certain portion of the property.”

Wiseman reached out to Jackson County’s University of Georgia Extension agent Greg Pittman and was connected with a UGA viticulturist who assisted with site selection and in choosing the varieties. They are currently growing Carlos, Villard Blanc and Norton.

“We currently have 200 vines in the ground and are in our third growing season,” said Wiseman. “We’re getting close to our first harvest.”

Farm wineries have been growing in popularity over the past decade. If approved, it will be the first in Jackson County.

“There’s close to 100 Georgia farm wineries today in the state. It’s been contributing billions of dollars to the Georgia economy and we really do believe it will be good for Jackson County,” said Wiseman.


Also at its meeting, the planning commission voted to recommend:

•approval of a special use for a 8.7 acres at 4345 Plainview Rd., Maysville. A portion of the property will be used for a radio tower for the county’s upgraded emergency management radio system.

•denial of a map amendment from Flipping Out, LLC, for 3.5 acres on Ebenezer Church Rd., Jefferson. The applicant wants a character area change from ag to rural to split the tract into two lots.

•approval of a rezoning request from Michael Nanni for 13.525 acres at 5259 Brockton Loop Rd., Jefferson. Nanni seeks a rezoning from planned commercial farm district to agricultural residential district to split the property into five lots for residential use.

•approval of a rezoning request from Sandra Eliasson for 9.18 acres at 1044 Raford Wilson Rd., Commerce. Eliasson is requesting a change from highway retail commercial district to R-1, which better fits the existing use of the property.

•approval of a rezoning request from Chad Thomason for 6.27 acres at 2435 Hwy. 124, Jefferson. Thomason is requesting a change from A-2 to CRC (commercial retail commercial district) and plans a mini-warehouse/self-service storage facility totaling 95,000 sq. ft.

•approval of a rezoning request from Keith Hayes for a little under ½ acre at 1105 Winder Hwy., Jefferson. Hayes has requested a change from A-2 to CRC and plans to use the property for a small office.

•approval of a rezoning request from John Adams for 1.43 acres at 10216 Old Commerce Rd., Athens. Adams requests a change from A-2 to CRC to allow an office on the property.

County ends 2020 with strong financial position

The Jackson County government had a banner year in 2020 from a financial standpoint.

According to the recently released audit, the county's general fund took in nearly $6 million more in revenues than it spent, growing the county's reserves from $12 million to $17.9 million. In 2016, the county's reserves were at $6.1 million.

There were no major findings in the audit, although the county's various fire districts continue to have some problems in how they do their departmental accounting. The county's senior center accounting also required some clean-up, auditors said.

The county has several different funds, the main one being the general fund  which took in $61.2 million in 2020. The county's emergency services fund took in $4.1 million while its non-major funds took in $6.4 million. SPLOST funds generated another $15.1 million.

Overall, the county's largest expenditures at $28.7 million were for public safety costs, including the sheriff's office, jail, emergency services and related departments. 

Commerce planners shoot down more proposed projects

The Commerce Planning Commission shot down two more proposed residential projects on July 26, a move that saw another outcry from citizens pushing back against development in the town.

The recommendations of denial come on the heels of the city's recent denial of a rezoning for a large residential project of over 400 homes south of town on Hwy. 441 at White Hill School Rd.

The Commerce City Council will have the final say on the projects in August.


This week, the planning board voted unanimously to recommend denial of a proposed 64 townhouse on 21 acres on Duncan Circle. Several residents of the neighborhood spoke against the proposal, saying streets in the area are unsuited for dense development.

The property is currently zone R-1 for single family homes.

"There are no sidewalks in our neighborhood, except on Homer Road," said Audry Strickland, citing the danger of traffic in the area. 

She also said there were five churches in the area and a lot of children and elderly people who would be affected by a dense development.

Nathan Anderson, chairman of the Commerce Board of Education, also spoke in opposition to the project.

"Our streets have not been taken care of for years," he said of the neighborhood. He said school buses have to move to the side of the road to let cars come by in the area.

"Our neighborhood hasn't been brought up to code for years," he said of the area's infrastructure. "...if you want to develop something, you ought to come in and help the city develop our neighborhood instead of putting townhouses in our neighborhood."


In another recommendation of denial, the planning board gave a thumbs-down for a mix of single-family houses and townhouses on 161 acres on Ila Rd. near Hwy. 441.

Cheyenne Land Trust is proposing to build 287 single-family homes and 194 townhomes on the property.

Several people spoke in opposition to the project, including some who spoke last month in opposition to the proposed White Hill School Rd. project.

"We can't have this many people coming into Commerce, we can't deal with the traffic and the sewerage...our schools can't handle it, our roads can't handle it, Commerce can't handle it," said Joey Olsen.

State Representative Tommy Benton also spoke against the project. Benton had recently spoken against the White Hill School Rd. project, which abuts land he owns and farms on.

Benton said he realizes he no longer lives in Commerce, but as a property owner, he said he wanted to express concerns about overall growth issues in Commerce.

"My concerns are the same concerns we had about the proposal on down on Hwy. 441 — the schools, the infrastructure, all the negatives and I don't see any positives for this," Benton said. "It seems like we've got this wave of developers coming into this area who tell the City of Commerce what it needs and I have some concerns with that, that the developers are the ones who are running the whole show. That's not the way it's supposed to be."

The vote to recommend denial of the project was 4-1 with planning board chairman Joe Leffew voting against denial.

Leffew said the property is currently zoned R-3, which would allow owners to build over 500 duplex or quadplexes as rental units. He said the developers had worked with the city's planning staff to come up with a plan that would focus more on single-family, owner-occupied homes.


In other planning commission action July 26, the board:

• voted 3-2 recommend approval of  .62 acres on Maysville Rd. from A-2 in the county to annex and zone C-2 in the city for an automotive body shop.

• voted to approve the annexation and rezoning of 6.8 acres at 2377 Homer Rd. from HRC in the county to C-2 in the city to expand a car lot.

• tabled a request to annex .57 acres at 593 Latham Rd. from A-2 in the county to R-1 in the city.

• tabled a request to rezone 8.6 acres at 155 Waterworks Rd. from R-5 to R-6.