Adapting education in a time of pandemic has been an in-depth and lengthy process for Polk School District leaders, but with the start of the school year just days away there are still questions about how classes will go.
Polk Schools Superintendent Laurie Atkins unveiled the system’s plan for reopening schools earlier this month focusing on new rules for students to maintain physical distancing, as well as new procedures covering transportation, meals and instruction.
The first day of school has remained Aug. 3 and no change to any other version of reopening has been mentioned by the Polk County Board of Education.
Part of the plan in place is the option for parents to have their children participate in virtual learning, meaning they would work from home by completing courses over the internet. The school district set a deadline of July 17 for applications.
Atkins said they had 949 of approximately 8,000 students apply for distant learning. That is around 11.9% of the district’s total enrollment.
Principals and district staff spent time last week providing training for those teachers who will be part of the distant learning program.
“We are fortunate to have Directed Studies teachers at each of our schools,” Atkins said. “These teachers, along with support from the media specialists, will be supervising, monitoring and communicating with the distance learning students.”
Students will be responsible for having their own device and a reliable internet connection, with most of them working via an electronic platform called Odysseyware.
There will be a 10-day grace period once school starts where parents of distant learning students may elect to have their child attend classes in-person instead, but after that time is up the student must remain in the distant learning program at least through the rest of the semester.
During an information meeting for parents who applied for their child to participate in distant learning, school district officials reiterated that the option was given for students with weakened immune systems or who have a family situation that could be difficult if a family member is exposed to COVID-19, and it was never designed as a convenience for those students who simply do not want to attend class.
District leaders have continually stated they have based the plan on guidance from both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the Georgia Department of Education.
On Thursday, the CDC posted new guidelines on education and child care that are in favor of having students return to school, saying children don’t suffer much from the new coronavirus, are less likely than adults to spread it and suffer from being out of school.
The guidelines do recommend that local officials should consider closing schools, or keeping them closed, if there is substantial, uncontrolled transmission of the virus.
The Georgia Department of Public Health reported 457 Polk County residents had tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic in March. That is equal to a little more than 1% of the county’s population, according to the most recent estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau.
“It is critically important for our public health to open schools this fall,” CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said in a statement announcing the updates.
“School closures have disrupted normal ways of life for children and parents, and they have had negative health consequences on our youth. CDC is prepared to work with K-12 schools to safely reopen while protecting the most vulnerable.”
Increased cleaning and sanitization of classrooms and other highly-trafficked areas in school buildings is a part of the Polk School District reopening plan, and Atkins said they are prepared to deal with the cost associated with it thanks to federal funding triggered by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
“There is an increased cost associated with the additional cleaning, personnel, and personal protective equipment that will be used to keep our students and employees safe. Once again, we are fortunate that we have been given CARES Act funds to offset the cost to the district,” Atkins said.