ALBANY — A near-even split in parents willing to send children back to classrooms and a recent surge of new novel coronavirus cases have made a decision to postpone on-campus instruction easier for officials in the Dougherty County School System.
When the 13,500 Dougherty County students return to learn on Aug. 17, it will be back to virtual classes for the foreseeable future. The school system has committed to keeping campuses closed until the transmission of the coronavirus falls in the community.
“It’s going to be based on conditions,” Schools Superintendent Kenneth Dyer said.
The delay in re-opening comes as the number of COVID-19 cases and new cases both nearly tripled in July over totals in June.
Conditions established for re-opening schools for in-person instruction include the rate of positive cases to be less than 5 percent for those tested and the number of new cases to be less than seven per day in the county.
“We need a 14-day period where things are going in the right direction, then we’ll transition back to on-campus instruction for our families,” Dyer said. “We’re a long way from where we need to be to get back to school.
“There is no book. What’s best for Dougherty County may not be best for other counties. Our spread rate, our positivity rate, may be different from other counties.”
According to the most recent numbers, about 13 percent of those tested locally for the coronavirus tested positive.
Results of a poll showed that parents seem to agree. Some 45 percent of those who responded said they wanted their children to receive instruction online.
The school system is distributing tablets for younger children and laptops for older students and will provide mobile hotspots for those who do not have a reliable internet connection at home. High schools will start classes on Aug. 17, with middle school resuming a week later and elementary schools beginning virtual classes on Aug. 31.
When students eventually return to classrooms, it will be a different environment. The school system has purchased plexiglass shields that will enclose three sides of desks in elementary and middle schools. Students, except for those who have a valid medical reason, will be required to wear face masks on buses, in common areas and in classrooms, as will teachers. Face shields also will be available for those who need them.
Class size will be limited to 16 students, and schools will have staggered bells to limit the number of students in hallways at the same time. As much as possible, high schools will limit traffic in hallways to one-way to prevent students passing others.
Elementary and middle school students will remain in the same classroom, with teachers moving from room to room during the day.
With 45 percent of students learning at home, it will be easier to maintain social distancing on buses and campuses for those who do return.
The school system spent $1.2 million on mobile hotspots for the year. In all, the school system spent about $2 million to prepare for returning to learning on campus. The state and federal governments provided funding to help pay for the purchases.
Laboratory work for the most part can be done online, but where students will miss out is in areas such as construction and welding, where hands-on learning is required.
“We’re working on a plan to bring that back,” Dyer said. “We’ll have a plan to bring those students back in small groups. We’re not going to bring them back the first part of the school year.”
Another unknown at this point is whether football teams will return to the gridiron in the fall. Athletes currently are allowed to do light training but have not been allowed to return to weight rooms. The school system is conferring with state health officials and will hold a meeting next week with coaches and athletic directors.
“We’re looking at that (sports),” Dyer said. “We want to provide a full range of extracurricular activities. We feel that helps students. We will be making a decision on fall sports within the next week.”
The school system is providing online counseling opportunities for students who have been isolated due to the closing of schools in March and will continue to do so.
At the Commodore Conyers College and Career Academy, where much of the instruction involves hands-on learning, school officials are working with the school system to return students in small numbers.
“That’s what we’re working on,” said 4C CEO Chris Hatcher. “Our hope is that we will do virtual classes and have lab days that (allow) some student participation.”
The Pathways program includes areas such as robotics and construction. Students also have built a garden area, where food is grown as part of a larger project but also goes to help out the community’s residents who do not have access to fresh vegetables.
The 4C Academy works in partnership with Dougherty County Schools, it’s largest funding source, as well as Baker, Calhoun and Terrell counties.
“That’s where you get the best instruction,” Hatcher said of the lab work. “I think it will be very positive (to return).”
When students come back, 4C will follow social distancing and other protocols, and the plan is for a rotating schedule that limits the number of students on campus.
As is the case for Dougherty County campuses, all people entering the building will be checked with a thermometer.
“They have an excellent plan, in my view, for different protocols for back to school, covering buildings, buses, everything,” Hatcher said. “I think students are ready to re-engage. I don’t think it will be that hard for them.”