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Madison County school officials recently asked parents to weigh in on a tough question — what should the schools do in the fall about COVID-19?

The answer is in: start school in person. That’s scheduled to happen Aug. 7, with 5,000 students and 700 employees getting back in action.

“Most of our parents in our survey have wanted their kids to come back to in-person instruction,” said school superintendent Michael Williams.

Those uncomfortable sending their children to school due to the coronavirus pandemic will also have the option to keep them home for the first semester, where they will do online work.

“We know there will be some that choose to stay home and we are working to provide an online option for those students and those parents,” said Williams.

So, what about in-class instruction?

The Georgia Department of Public Health and the state Department of Education recently released a pamphlet with suggested steps for “addressing community spread in K-12 schools.” Williams said the county school system is using the “Georgia Path to Recovery for K-12 Schools” as a basis for its decision-making. That plan divides schools into three categories: 1. low/no spread, 2. minimal/moderate spread, and 3. substantial spread. There are different suggestions for how schools should respond based on their designation in terms of COVID-19 spread.

But what determines a school’s category? What is the threshold for a school going from low/no spread to minimal/moderate spread? How often will this assessment be done? In a tier-based system, what are the boundaries of the tier?

Williams said the state hasn’t provided clear answers on that as of yet. The superintendent said the state DOE and health department told the school system to call the local health department for assistance with categories. But that information hadn’t been conveyed to the local health office. He said the communication from the state to local officials hasn’t been ideal so far.

“I don’t want to be too negative, but there’s a little bit of lack of communication, a breakdown somewhere with the state and the local levels,” he said. “They (the state) are supposedly working on determining which category you would fall into, low spread, moderate spread or substantial spread.”

Nevertheless, the school system intends to offer a plan for parents and students to review by the week of July 4.

“Parents need to make plans on when school starts and what child care would look like, and we need to start planning our budget and payroll and setting it for the fiscal year 2021,” said Williams. “Our goal will be the first week of July to have some official announcement about the start of school and the guidelines moving forward.”

Meanwhile, school leaders are busy planning and discussing responses to various potential scenarios.

“I’ve met with principals; I’ve met with the central office staff and we’ve gone through various scenarios — the what ifs,” said Williams. “What if a staff member is positive, what if a student or multiple students in a classroom? Are we going to shut down the school? Are we going to send those kids home? Are we going to require testing before they come back? And we’ve consulted with our attorneys on what we can and can’t do. There’s still a lot up in the air. Obviously, we would do some deep cleaning if there were situations with multiple kids or staff members. And if we needed to shut a particular school, or multiple schools, or the whole system, we would be ready to do that.”

Williams said the start of in-person instruction will include two immediate objectives: preparing for potential online instruction in case the virus causes another shutdown and remediation work, since the students have been out of classroom settings since March.

“Our plan is to get in and really start training our students, passing out the devices, training our students on how to use Google Classroom or any other platform that we would use for distance learning,” said Williams. “And we’ll really work on that in the beginning to be prepared if we did have an outbreak. Then, we will also focus on remediation, because our kids have been out of school for a long time. We need to see where our kids are and where those learning gaps are as they return.”

Each student will have a device for online services.

“We’re going to roll out the ‘one-to-one’ initiative this year,” said Williams. “And every kid will have a device, which is good. And we will be better prepared for a shutdown or distance learning period. Not just better prepared with devices but with lessons and instruction and grading and things of that nature, because we were thrown a little bit of a curveball and maybe not as prepared as we needed to be, but who would have thought (a pandemic was coming)?”

The superintendent said school leaders talked about schedule modifications, such as having some students attend certain days and other students coming on different days. He said the logistics of such scenarios don’t make sense for many families. For instance, a family with three kids may want all of them attending on the same day, which might not be possible. So the schools opted to go with a traditional schedule.

Williams said those families who opt not to send their child to school at the beginning of the year must remain in an online program through the first semester.

“If you start online, you have to go the first semester,” he said. “You could come back in January. We don’t want people jumping back week-to-week and month-to-month. If you choose to do that, we’ll have a program ready for you come August.”

The superintendent said online instruction is different for older kids than younger ones.

“For grades 6-12, they would be on what we use for credit recovery, which is GradPoint, an online credit for high school and middle school courses,” said Williams. “That’s what we use for alternative school students and any kind of credit recovery. They offer a wide range of courses from biology to math.”

Williams said distance learning for young children is a real challenge.

“Our elementary is a little more difficult when you’re talking about a kindergartner or first grader and site words and reading,” he said. “Our teaching and learning team is putting together and option for K-5. I can’t say exactly what that looks like just yet. We will probably have one teacher per grade level, per school oversee those particular students that choose not to return to school.”

So, what about sports? Will there be football, softball, cross country?

“We’re just relying on GHSA (Georgia High School Association) to provide those guidelines,” said Williams. “If we have school, I’m sure we will have sports. Now, I don’t know what those specific guidelines would look like. It’s going to be hard to tell mama and daddy of a senior they can’t come watch their son or daughter play football or basketball or softball.”

Williams said the past few months have been hard on everyone. But he said he has felt uplifted lately.

“What has made me feel good last week was coming to the office and on the campus and seeing people, and seeing students,” he said. “That makes me feel good. We are a place that people come to. And for those several weeks, however many it was, you didn’t see anybody. The parking lot was empty. The schools were empty. Just seeing the cars in the parking lot, seeing a few students who had come to do some workouts, whether it was with football or basketball or softball. That’s what’s made me excited, just a return to campus, people returning to campus. This is Madison County schools. People should be here. It’s not supposed to be deserted. It brings life to the campus. That’s what made me energized last week and this week.”

He said there’s a lot that remains unanswered but that the students and staff are certainly ready to see each other.

“I look forward to next year and hope to start in the fall on Aug. 7 and bring kids back in smiling and loving them and of course being safe,” said Williams. “But our adults miss the kids and our kids miss the adults.”

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