With the state under a public health emergency until Aug. 11, the Jackson County School System will delay reopening until Aug. 12 amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Superintendent April Howard made the announcement during the Jackson County Board of Education’s (BOE) July 9 work session. The BOE approved the change at its July 13 meeting.
“We’re planning to come back Aug. 12 as normal as we can under the guidelines that we have in place,” she said.
The BOE had originally planned for an July 31 start date with Aug. 3 as a back-up start date.
The school calendar calls for 190 teacher days with no furloughs and 175 student days.
The Aug. 12 start date will, however, force the cancellation of a full-week fall break in October (students will have three days instead) since that break wouldn’t leave for enough days for instruction, Thanksgiving break and winter break within the first semester.
The system will offer a distance-learning option to students whose parents feel uncomfortable with in-person instruction during a pandemic. Students choosing distance learning will be issued a Google Chrome Book.
System leaders, however, ask that students commit to one option — either distance learning or in-person instruction — for at least one semester.
“Because once we establish that this is our distance-learning cohort and these are our classrooms, then it’s going to be difficult for kids to come in and out,” Howard said.
Assistant superintendent Todd Nickelsen, however, said the system would not force a student to stay within a learning model in which they don't perform well.
For in-person instruction, schools will follow social-distancing guidelines “to the greatest of our possibility,” according to Howard, but social distancing will not be guaranteed at all times.
“So we’re going to implement it to the greatest extent possible, but I wouldn’t want a parent feeling like they were receiving a guarantee that their children were going to be six feet away from somebody all day long,” Howard said.
System leaders expect teachers to wear masks when social distancing is not possible, and students will be encouraged to wear masks. But Howard said the system would not “create a battleground” over facemarks.
“We’re going to encourage it,” Howard said. “We’re going to expect it. But we’re not going to police and be punitive if children don’t.”
The system has also presented protocol for dealing with COVID-19 cases.
Students or teachers with confirmed COVID-19 cases with symptoms can return to school after 72 hours have passed since recovery and at least 10 days have passed since symptoms first appeared. Recovery is defined as the resolution of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications and improvement in respiratory symptoms.
Those without symptoms but have confirmed COVID-19 cases can return to school after at least 10 days have passed since a positive test and the person remains asymptomatic.
Those exposed to a person with COVID-19 after having come into close contact (less than six feet for more that 15 minutes) and having not worn personal protection equipment (PPE) can return to school after 14 days of quarantine and having met all requirements outlined in the department of health guidance for COVID-19 exposure.
Those with known exposure to a person with COVID-19 without wearing PPE but the contact was not close may return to school, but should wear a mask and self-monitor for symptoms, including temperature checks twice a day for 14 days.
Jackson County, as did other schools around the state, had intended to formulate their re-opening plans based on a level of community spread (low, moderate or high) as determined by the department of public health.
But the school system never received that information. Howard said the department of health has since moved away from that guidance and plans to provide a “decision tree” to help systems determine how they’re to reopen. But Howard said the “decision tree” has not yet been received.
“To be very candid with you, we’re trying to make decisions as the information is changing,” she said.
“What we’re presenting to you is what we think is the best plan now,” Howard added.
Should Gov. Brian Kemp extend the public health emergency, the system would either begin the school year with remote learning or move to a modified approach, which would bring in half of the students onto campuses for two days and the other half for two days.
In other business, the BOE:
•discussed limiting outside use of school facilities to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread.
•discussed implementing an app program called PikMyKid to dismiss students for car pick-up. School leaders look to avoid congregation of students at the front of schools at the end of the school day.
•heard that the system’s SPLOST earnings for May — $769,195 — were among its highest ever.
•heard that the system ended the fiscal year with nearly $17.83 million in reserves, an improvement of approximately $4.3 million over last year. That increase will nearly offset state-funding cuts for the system in 2020-21.
•reviewed teacher salary schedules, which were unchanged from last year, and a non-teaching salary schedule with minimal changes. Supplement schedules were reviewed as well.
•heard that the system’s July registration reflects an enrollment of 8,386. Jackson County Comprehensive High School’s enrollment has jumped from 1,294 at the end of last school year to 1,443. That increase has Howard “very concerned.”