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Schools’ COVID-19 threat level: Red

Each school system has been given the leeway to determine their own COVID-19 responses, so how they function as new cases continue to rise will largely depend on their individual leaders.

The Rome City and Floyd County systems have different — but similar — policies in place for how they’ll operate if the spread of the coronavirus continues. And both superintendents said they plan on working together in determining systemwide closures.

Students in both local systems are set to return to classes Aug. 13, following decisions by the school boards last week to delay openings.

With approximately a month left before the first day of school, there are predictions of a post-July 4 holiday spike in infections, based on recorded spikes after the Memorial Day holiday. The timing of when those new cases might present themselves has cast a pall on hopes for in-person lessons.

However, the plan still is for school to start back. Regardless of whether they’re in the classroom physically or virtually, RCS Superintendent Lou Byars said students will be back in school.

“There will be a virtual option for parents who aren’t comfortable sending their children to school,” Byars said.

That option will be open to all students, with teachers scheduled to educate kids via a live video stream at specific times each day. The city system has been purchasing video cameras with CARES Act funds so teachers can broadcast their lessons — from a classroom or from home.

“If we have an outbreak and the system closes, we’ll still have virtual learning,” Byars said.

There’s a similar plan at Floyd County Schools. Some students could opt out of in-person classes but they would be locked into that plan for a predetermined period of time. If schools close because of high COVID-19 infection rates, then those students will go to regularly scheduled online classes.

Teachers will be doing live instruction and both school systems are working to get technology in the hands of teachers and students to make this happen.

Both school systems also have been working on plans to get internet connectivity for students who may not be able to afford the service or who live in areas where service is spotty.

An unanswered question — at least at this point — is what is the basis for determining a closure.

Regional response

Both superintendents have been meeting with their counterparts in the 17 school systems within the Northwest Georgia Regional Education Service Agency district. Their hopes are to put together a cohesive response plan within that district prior to schools opening.

Up to this point, the state has not given firm guidelines to school districts, leaving that decision in local hands.

Each school system’s pandemic policies fall into a color coded plan. Green represents low or no spread of the virus and schools are open. Red means there is a high spread of the virus and schools are closed to all in-person learning.

Between the open and closed is a yellow area, which stands for moderate spread; some schools are open or partially open and others are not.

Virtual learning, which was instituted in the last school year, still plays a key role in all three scenarios.

To determine their operating level, superintendents are consulting Dr. Gary Voccio, the health director for the Department of Public Health’s Northwest Health District. But, while the DPH will offer guidance, it’s still up to each superintendent to determine the course of action.

Also, consideration concerning specific school closures will have to be taken on a case by case basis.

“We’re going to play it by ear,” said Floyd County Schools Superintendent Jeff Wilson. “If there’s one student in one class (who tests COVID-19 positive) that may be different than a PE teacher who seen several classes. It’s a game by game discussion.”

As of late last week, both administrators were still looking for updated guidance from the DPH as well as the Georgia Department of Education before setting their policies.

At one point, community spread of 100 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people within a two-week period was considered fast. In the past two weeks Floyd County — with roughly 99,900 people — has come close to doubling that rate.

So right now, Wilson said, we’d be in the red. The questions still to be answered are what will the guidelines be as schools begin to open and what will be the new infection rate.

“We want to make a decision within two weeks whether we start or not,” Byars said. “If you would have asked me a month ago, I would have said we’re starting. Now I don’t even want to speculate.”

Another reason to partner in the decision making process for system wide closures is that the state only releases county by county numbers. That means each school system will be operating on what Floyd County’s COVID-19 numbers are. There’s no delineation between Rome and Floyd County.

Some school systems in Georgia, hard-hit Cobb County most notably, have already decided to delay starting back to school. Across the Alabama border, Cherokee County has already stated they’re waiting to open schools in late August.

Both superintendents met with principals this week to discuss preparations, and many schools brought teachers back in to start getting schools ready.

In the next four weeks, as the school start date nears, both superintendents said they’ll be keeping a close eye on the numbers.

Rome DDA director job draws 30 applicants

The field of applicants is set for Rome’s vacant executive director position at the Downtown Development Authority — with 30 candidates tossing their hats in the ring.

Assistant City Manager Patrick Eidson said that, on first glance, he is pretty happy with the response.

“We like to think that Rome is a community, and a city with a vibrant downtown, and when a position like (this) becomes available we believe people want to come and work here,” he said.

The position has been vacant since June, when Amanda Carter resigned to take over the Whistle Britches women’s clothing boutique at 206 Broad St.

Eidson is leading the initial review of applicants and hopes to be able to start interviewing candidates in the near future.

A number of applicants are local but Eidson would not disclose any names at this point.

“We’ve got some other folks with DDA and Main Street experience from other communities,” Eidson said.

The assistant city manager will directly supervise the position. He said he’s looking for someone with a background of working with merchants, so DDA experience is important.

“What we do from a local government perspective is all about service,” Eidson said. “Service is all about communication and communication is all about relationship-building. If you can do all those things I think you’re going to be a pretty good candidate.”

Bob Blumberg, owner of Bistro 208 on Broad Street and chairman of the DDA, said he feels the next leader needs to be someone who can relate directly with the business owners and make sure they feel their voices are being heard.

“And it needs to be someone who can keep the funding progress going for downtown renovations, facade grants and everything,” Blumberg said.

Since the year 2000, Rome entrepreneurs have benefited from more than $9.5 million in revolving loan funds from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs and Georgia Cities Foundation. That’s helped spur more than $47.2 million worth of reinvestment downtown.

Rome is in the midst of a concerted effort to grow the downtown district across the Oostanaula River — primarily along the West Third Street and North Fifth Avenue corridors, an area known as the River District.

A public workshop to discuss the proposed streetscape design for the River District is scheduled for July 21 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the Courtyard Rome Riverwalk, 320 W. Third St.

Kylie Robinson, a fifth-grader at Model Elementary School

City Commission meets Monday on mask mandate, Nathan Forrest statue

Face masks and Confederate statues are among the issues the Rome City Commission is expected to take up Monday.

The board meets at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall, 601 Broad St. — masks required — and its deliberations are streamed live on its Facebook page City of Rome, GA.

Mayor Bill Collins is scheduled to lead a discussion on the possibility of mandating face coverings in public within the city limits.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the county is on track to top 700 this weekend. As of Friday afternoon, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported 693 residents have been infected. That’s an increase of 23 overnight and more than 100 new cases since the beginning of the week.

At a joint meeting with the Floyd County Commission last week, Collins and at least some of the city commissioners indicated they could support a mask mandate. While Gov. Brian Kemp has barred municipalities from enacting stricter coronavirus restrictions than the state, cities including Atlanta, Savannah and Athens have passed ordinances requiring masks.

There is, however, no action item for masks on the agenda released Friday.

Votes are scheduled on several committee recommendations regarding city monuments and the statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest that stands in Myrtle Hill Cemetery.

The Community Development Services Committee unanimously recommended the city ask the state for permission to move the Forrest statue to the new Fort Norton Park on Jackson Hill.

The 2013 special purpose, local option sales tax package contained $200,000 for a tourism information center where the historic Fort Norton’s earthen fortification system is now the basis for multi-purpose trails.

The committee also wants to set up two new citizen groups. The temporary Interpretation Advisory Committee would come up with explanatory signage for the Forrest statue. A permanent Monuments Advisory Committee would look at all the monuments the city has — and doesn’t have — to honor historical figures, and recommend any actions going forward.

A public hearing on the proposed 2020 property tax rate also is scheduled.

The city is planning to keep the millage rate at 27.536 mills. That’s 17.450 mills for the city school system and 10.086 mills to fund city government services.

The levy is equal to $1,377 on a home valued at $125,000, less any exemptions.

While the rate would be unchanged since 2017, it’s considered a tax increase under state law because the total value of property in the city has increased to bring in more revenue. That means three public hearings are required before it can be adopted.

A second hearing is set for 10 a.m. Thursday, July 23, and the final one will be at the board’s 6:30 p.m. regular meeting on Monday, July 27.

Nearly 400 youth in Rome for tennis tourney

Nearly 400 competitors from 10 states are in Floyd County this weekend for the Georgia Junior Open tennis championships.

Play begins Saturday at the Rome Tennis Center, off the Armuchee Connector, and is scheduled to run through Tuesday. Spectators can drop in to watch the matches for free.

The tournament is so large that action will also take place at the Downtown Tennis Center on West Third Street.

Lisa Smith, executive director of Georgia’s Rome Office of Tourism, said that everyone on her staff is on call for the tournament, to work along with the U.S. Tennis Association officials that come in to help oversee the event.

“Our goal is to build up a tournament volunteer base,” Smith said. “That’s going to be our next big recruiting pitch, but right now a lot of folks who would normally serve as volunteers are just not coming out (because of COVID-19). We’re making do with what we have.”

The player seating areas are sanitized between every match and bleacher seating is cordoned off to force spectators to physically distance from one another.

During the Georgia Junior Open Challenger event two weeks ago, most of the players’ families and friends brought their own lawn chairs and sat out in the grassy areas somewhat away from the courts.

A number of players who came for that event are slated to be back including Eythan Ward of Conyers, Stephen Zhu of Marietta and Robert McAdoo, who each won boys age group championships. Sasha Dimitrov of Alpharetta, a winner in a girls competition, also is returning, along with Gracie Koch of Louisville, Kentucky, a runner-up.

The Rome Tennis Center is picking up a little extra money this weekend by selling practice time slots to players for the indoor courts, which were completed earlier this year.

Tournament officials put a note on the website about the availability and the time slots started to fill up quickly Friday.

The top seeds for the Georgia Junior Open tournament are:

♦ Will Kistler of Atlanta and AnnCabot Stockett of Madison, Mississippi, in the 18&U divisions;

♦ Myan Ponugoti of Suwanee and Caroline Myers of Huntersville, North Carolina, in the 16&U divisions;

♦ Henry Imorde of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, and Lilly Lancaster of Cumming in the 14&U category;

♦ Jake Mong of Marietta and Teri Brantley of Atlanta in the 12&U division; and

♦ Henry Hiatt of Meridian, Mississippi, and Peyton Standifer of Birmingham, Alabama, in the 10&U age group.