School buses

Catoosa County school buses hit the road, beginning Monday, Aug. 24, as students returned to classes from their summer break.

During the first two weeks after Catoosa County students returned to class, 15 people — eight students and seven teachers — tested positive for COVID-19, Superintendent Denia Reese said Friday, Sept. 4

“However, 56 teachers and 132 students had to be sent home to quarantine for 14 days due to close contact with someone who was positive,” she said.

Catoosa County schools reopened on Monday, Aug. 24.

The school chief said that when the school system receives a report of a student or employee who tests positive for COVID, the school follows a transparency protocol: parents of students who were close contacts are contacted by phone to begin a 14-day quarantine, a message is sent to parents of students in the teacher’s class, an email is sent to the staff, and a text alert is sent to all parents in the school. The system’s website (https://www.catoosa.k12.ga.us) also updates positive cases, by school, each Friday.

Of the school system’s 10,627 students, a little more than a quarter are participating in full digital learning, Reese said.

As for in-person, in-class learning, the school system is operating on a hybrid schedule. Elementary students (kindergarten through fifth grade) attend school five days a week. Pre-kindergarten, middle and high school students attend either on Mondays and Tuesdays or on Thursdays and Fridays, and they participate in digital learning on the days they aren’t in class.

“Opening in the hybrid model, so we could social distance all classrooms, has reduced the number of quarantines by 50 to 60%,” Reese said. “Social distancing is especially important so we can protect our teachers. If teachers test positive, or a large number have to quarantine due to close contact with students and employees, we will have to close schools.”

Social distancing was a pivotal factor in setting up the hybrid system.

“When we closed our survey for online learning, the #OPENSCHOOL Task Force analyzed the results,” Reese said. “In K-5, we average 25 or fewer students per class. With a large number of students participating in digital instruction, and using auxiliary teachers — for example, media specialist and interventionist — to create additional classes, we were able to reduce our elementary classrooms to 16 or fewer to allow social distancing.

“Secondary classes have up to 35 students, so the number of digital learners didn’t allow us to lower class sizes sufficiently to social distance. In middle and high school, teachers must be content-certified, so we couldn’t use auxiliary teachers to create new classes to lower class sizes,” she said.

“One of the primary guidelines we’ve heard for mitigating the spread of COVID is social distancing, which is the reason we opened pre-k, middle and high schools on a hybrid model,” she said. “I had no idea how ‘close contacts’ would impact students and teachers until we had to begin contact tracing for positive cases.”

When an individual reports testing positive for COVID-19, she said, the school system must begin contact tracing to determine close contacts. The Department of Public Health defines close contacts as anyone the positive individual has been in contact with for 15 minutes or more, within 6 feet or less, in the last 48 hours. Individuals who are close contacts of someone who is positive are required to quarantine for 14 days.

Contact tracing has really impacted district operations this school year, Reese said. Every close contact with someone who is positive must be identified and contacted. In some situations, there are no close contacts, but in others there have been ten, she said.

Reese said she appreciates the support she has received from parents and the community during this health crisis. While the hybrid model and students in distance learning has enabled the system to social distance classrooms and keep schools open, she understands that digital learning can be challenging.

“Our teachers worked very hard this summer to improve digital learning,” she said. “We purchased the SchoolsPLP platform for elementary school, and teachers participated in professional development specific to digital learning. The first two weeks of school revealed some things we need to improve. I appreciate everyone’s patience with this platform that is new for students, parents and teachers.

“Closing school in March was the worst experience of my career,” she said. “I never imagined our schools, and our country, would be closed due to a pandemic. I am thankful that we’ve been back in classes for two weeks and we’ve not had to close a school. I know our students are looking forward to fall sports and extracurricular activities, and I want them to have these special memories.

“No one wants to reopen school on a traditional schedule more than me, but we must work toward this goal keeping health and safety first so we can keep our schools open,” she said.

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