The number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise in the area, forcing local health, school and business leaders to again grapple with how to handle the spreading virus.
As of July 20, Northeast Georgia Health System was treating 127 positive COVID patients. That’s up from 68 patients one week prior on July 13. Twenty-four patients are currently being treated at Northeast Georgia Medical Center Braselton.
The rise in cases prompted the health system to again implement visitation restrictions.
“For the safety of our patients and our community, all NGHS locations are temporarily returning to restricted visitation beginning Wednesday, July 15,” said Michael Covert, NGHS chief operating officer. “All facilities will remain open as usual to provide care for patients, and we are not cancelling any surgeries, procedures or appointments at this time. Visit nghs.com/visiting for complete visitation details.”
The hospital system has also rebuilt the mobile medical units outside NGMC Gainesville and NGMC Braselton.
“Our emergency care spaces are occasionally reaching capacity, and we are thankful that our communities are again trusting us with their care,” Covert said. “In order to provide emergency care and keep our wait times as short as possible, we are taking advantage of the opportunity to use the tents as an expansion of our existing emergency care space.”
The hospital system is also planning to open the new mobile medical unit at NGMC Gainesville. That unit has 20 traditional hospital beds and will be used for COVID-19 patients.
The number of cases in Braselton’s four-county area continues to grow. Details from those counties include:
•Barrow: 771 cases; 29 deaths; 137 hospitalizations
•Gwinnett: 13,614 cases; 199 deaths; 1,537 hospitalizations
•Hall: 4,420 cases; 66 deaths; 559 hospitalizations
•Jackson: 631 cases; 12 deaths; 69 hospitalizations
•Statewide: 145,575 cases; 3,176 deaths; 15,047 hospitalizations
The Oaks at Braselton, a personal care home off Thompson Mill Rd., has reported two positive residents and five positive staff members since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Four of those staff cases were reported earlier this year.
The increase across the area has forced local school systems to decide whether to reopen school doors this fall as previously planned (see related stories).
Meanwhile, several Braselton area restaurants temporarily closed last week after having an employee test positive. Many of those restaurants reopened their doors this week after cleaning, additional testing and sending home those who tested positive.
Gwinnett County Public Schools has announced it will begin the school year with digital instruction. The district will return to school Aug. 12 with 100% digital instruction.
Although the district had planned to begin with both in-person and digital instruction, the current COVID-19 situation required a change in those plans, according to a news release.
“There is no replacement for face-to-face instruction, and that was our preferred model for starting the school year,” said Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks. “With that in mind, we offered parents an option between in-person and digital instruction in order to be responsive to their wishes for their children. However, out of an abundance of concern for our students, families, and employees, we made a very difficult decision based on the increasing number of COVID-19 cases we are seeing in our county, as well as the concerns that have been expressed by our teachers, parents, and others in the community.”
School leaders plan to continue gathering information from health officials and monitoring the changing COVID-19 situation to help determine when in-person instruction can resume.
School staff have worked in recent months to improve the digital learning experience, focusing on teaching in a digital environment and creating digital lessons and instructional resources to help teachers.
"Digital instruction this fall will look very different than it did in the spring," according to a news release. "Expectations for teachers and students will be consistent with those for in-person instruction. The digital school day will follow a daily schedule. School attendance will be expected and documented. And, students will receive grades and will take assessments to measure their learning.
"Teachers will report to their schools to deliver their digital lessons, participate in staff development, and collaborate with their fellow teachers to make digital instruction more effective for their students. For some employees, reporting to school may be difficult for a number of reasons. Principals will work with the staff members at their school to address individual concerns and make accommodations where possible. Those who are allowed to work from home will be expected to come to the school periodically to work with other school staff and leaders."
District leaders will continue to address the challenges of student access to devices and reliable internet connections. The district will check out Chromebooks and internet hotspots to students based on need.
“This is not the beginning of the school year we had hoped for; however, it was a possibility we planned for, knowing that keeping students and staff safe had to be a priority,” said Wilbanks. “We are confident we can do digital learning well, thanks to the quality teachers and leaders we have in this district, the comprehensive preparation over the last four months, and our steadfast commitment to do what’s best for Gwinnett students.”
Details for the 2020-21 school year will continue to be shared on the district website and in SchoolMessenger updates, including plans for a return to in-school instruction once that is possible.
Teachers will provide both live and recorded lessons and independent work. Students will be required to participate in digital instruction on a specific schedule with their teachers, and also complete activities and assignments on their own time to meet assignment deadlines.
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.”
As the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve and the summer break months near the end, Hall County school leaders are still looking at the best option for returning to school this fall.
"...July 20, will not be the day I make any updated recommendations to our board regarding the status of beginning school for this year," Hall County School District superintendent Will Schofield said in an announcement to the Hall County Board of Education. "Rest assured, our HCSD team will be consulting experts, considering our ability to staff enough adults to carry out any proposed plan, listening to our community, and ultimately making a decision that will no doubt be unpopular in our current political climate for some, popular with others, but ultimately what we believe is the best and safest option at that time."
Schofield said he plans to make a recommendation to the board in the near future.
"They will accept, reject or modify that recommendation and that will be our plan moving forward," he said. "My hope and prayer for this community is that we seek, with all of our ability, a desire to come together for the good of all, creating and developing the most positive, safe, and hopeful path forward for our boys and girls, our team members, and our overall community."
Shortly after the announcement, the district sent out a list of its current back-to-school guidelines, highlighting current plans for cleaning and additional safety precautions.
Among those is a requirement that HCSD employees wear a mask or face covering when working with team members or students. Students are also required to have a face covering and wear the covering when not socially distanced from others.
Students and staff will undergo health temperature checks and will be asked to self-screen. Those with a fever or symptoms will be sent to a designated waiting room.
Students and staff with COVID-19 symptoms or a positive test must stay home. Students who are quarantined can access classes through the district's online learning platform.
Additional cleaning will also be implemented in the district's buildings. Signage for traffic flow will be posted throughout the schools. Hand washing will be demonstrated and encouraged and hand sanitizer will be available. Additionally, water fountains will be turned off and students will be discouraged from sharing items.
See the full details on hallco.org/web/reconnect-hall.
The Jackson County School System may adjust its plans to reopen later this week, said superintendent April Howard on July 20. Howard said a number of staff members in the system have tested positive for the COVID virus.
"That is an impact on planning and potential adjustment," she said.
Around 18 percent of students in the system have requested virtual learning rather than attending in-school classes, Howard said.
The system plans to reopen Aug. 12 if possible.
In recent days, several Atlanta-area school systems have delayed reopening or moved to online only classes. Nearby Gwinnett County, the state's largest school system, decided this week to open with online classes and no in-person classes due to the virus surge in the state.
The state revised its guidelines for reopening schools last week to focus less on community spread of the virus and more on dealing with the virus within school facilities.
Getting children back into regular school classrooms has been a top priority for President Donald Trump and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. But some other political leaders want schools to delay reopening, fearing it could cause the virus to spread even more.
The Georgia Department of Transportation recently announced the first phase of the I-85 widening project has been substantially completed.
Spanning across Gwinnett, Barrow and Jackson counties, the project widened I-85 north of metro Atlanta from two to three lanes by adding one general purpose lane and a paved shoulder in each direction with a concrete median barrier replacing the existing grassed median.
This was the first project from the Major Mobility Investment Program (MMIP), the largest investment in roadway mobility improvements in the state’s history, to start construction in 2018 and the first to be completed and open to traffic.
Instead of a typical in-person ribbon cutting the GDOT produced a video that can be shared to celebrate the occasion. It can be viewed on Georgia DOT’s YouTube channel at https://youtu.be/cYVuaUta-aE or https://youtu.be/MGxbG2lbNeA for a longer version.
“The successful completion of the I-85 Widening, Phase 1 project marks a huge milestone for the state of Georgia,” said Georgia DOT Commissioner Russell R. McMurry. “The capacity that this project has brought is crucial to the continued prosperity of the growing communities along the I-85 corridor in northeast Georgia.”
As part of the project, three 50-year-old overpass bridges — Spout Springs Road bridge, Flowery Branch Road bridge and Jesse Cronic Road bridge — were replaced with new bridges and one northbound and one southbound mainline bridge was replaced. An Intelligent Transportation System (ITS), closed-circuit television (CCTV), signage, striping, and guardrails were also added or received upgrades within the project limits.
"The cities of Suwannee, Lawrenceville, Buford, Hoschton, Auburn and the Town of Braselton, will all receive positive impacts by this investment in the state’s transportation network," according to the GDOT news release. "As a result, drivers between Hamilton Mill Road and State Route 53 are expected to experience a 56% decrease in delays."
The GDOT utilized a delivery method through Design-Build, which accelerated construction and reduced construction times, minimizing travel impacts as much as possible, and maximizing the use of resources and the project budget.
Georgia DOT has also expedited the timeline of the corridor’s Phase 2 improvements, another MMIP project.
"Advancing this project represents the Department’s ability to progress projects forward when there is less or no right-of-way acquisitions and commercial development that could be impacted through project design and construction," according to the GDOT news release.
The second phase includes widening I-85 from two to three lanes in both directions from SR 53 to just north of US 129. Additional work on the project includes replacing one overpass bridge and six mainline bridges along I-85. The project is anticipated to start construction in 2021 and open to traffic four years ahead of the original schedule in 2023.
Information on the MMIP is available at https://www.majormobilityga.com, the I-85 Widening, Phase 1 project is available on the Georgia DOT website at https://majormobilityga.com/projects/i85widening/, and Phase 2 can be found at https://majormobilityga.com/projects/i85wideningphase2/.
Plans to update Hoschton's Hwy. 53 overlay district rules have been postponed until September.
The Hoschton City Council voted July 20 to delay taking a vote on the proposed update pending more information from citizens, property owners and the town's planner.
The proposed update was supposed to resolve some inconsistent rules and regulations in the overlay district. The district deals mostly with design issues along the Hwy. 53 corridor.
But several council members said they were unclear about what exactly was being changed with the rewritten regulations and at least one council member wanted to revisit why the overlay district had been extended outside the downtown area, a move that happened several years ago.
In other business at the council's July 20 meeting, the board approved:
• extending a sewerage line into an industrial area off of Jackson Trail Rd. with a 3-1 vote. Council member Shantwon Astin was opposed to the plan.
• declaring two vehicles as surplus and buying a new truck for the city.
• having city administrator Gary Fesperman begin interviewing people for two building inspector positions. The council also approved buying two new vehicles to be used by those hired for the positions.
• a water purchase agreement with the Town of Braselton for up to 200,000 gallons per day at a rate of $2.63/gal.
• amending the town's building permit regulations to require residences be occupied within one year and commercial buildings occupied within 18 months. An extension could be granted for cause by the city.
• appointing Joe Vogt and Dr. Mukesh Kumar to the town's planning commission. Vogt replaces Ray Vaughn while Kumar replaces James Lawson.
A proposal for a West Jackson residential development has been pulled, for now.
The Jackson County Board of Commissioners voted to accept a withdrawal of a rezoning request for 45 acres on Jackson Trail Rd. at its July 20 meeting.
Ray Vaughn had initially requested a rezoning from A-2 to R-2 to allow a residential development.
Vaughn requested the withdrawal of the request and apparently plans to come back to the county with a different proposed zoning and special use.
In other business, the BOC approved the following zoning items:
•rezoning requests for almost 14 acres at 3945 Hwy. 332, Hoschton. Galilee Springs, LLC, requested a CRC zoning to allow a mini-storage business on the property.
•a map amendment request for under an acre at 9246 Commerce Rd., Athens. The applicant, Kenneth Williams, requested a change of the future land use from commercial to residential. Williams plans to live on the property and have an art studio/office.
•a map amendment request for Jeff Halley, Halbro Tree Services, for 3 acres at 2832 Commerce Rd., Jefferson. Halley requested a change in the character area from rural to urban and a change in the future land use from residential to commercial. Halley wants to relocate his business to the property.
The Jackson County Board of Education approved a $86.1 million budget for spending in 2020-21 that will require the system to dip into its reserves.
The tentative budget, which calls for a two percent increase over last year’s budget, passed with a unanimous vote at the BOE's July 13 meeting.
The system is being cut an approximate $4.66 million dollars in state funds due to the economic slowdown brought on by COVID-19, so it will have to use $2 million from reserves during the coming year. The system ended the FY2020 fiscal year with $17.8 million in reserves.
The proposed budget asks for $35.9 million in local property taxes, up $1.71 million from 2019-20.
The tentative spending plan includes a millage rate of 18.655, which remains unchanged from last year. The final millage rate won't be set until later in the fall after the county's tax digest is determined.
SCHOLARSHIP NAMED FOR WARD
In other business, the BOE ageed tol name a scholarship award for East Jackson students in honor of former school system employee, former BOE member and community leader Margaret Ward.
Ward recently passed away at age 89. she was the first female board member on the Jackson County BOE. She served the school system for 40 years.
“If you want to talk about a true servant, that was Ms. Ward,” Jackson County superintendent April Howard said.
“She dedicated her life to students, she really, really did,” BOE chairman Lynne Wheeler added. “We will miss her and her spirit.”
In other business, the BOE approved:
• the strategic waiver school system amendments for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years.
• teacher salary schedules, which were unchanged from last year, and a non-teaching salary schedule with minimal changes. Supplement schedules were reviewed as well.
• 2020-21 supplement schedules.
• surplus items for sale.
• a revision of graduation requirements.
• its 2020-21 training plan.
• a retirement incentive agreement for Jan NeSmith.
• the system’s Excellence and Service Award to the teaching and learning department for its efforts in making remote and distance learning available during the suspension of in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.