MARIETTA — With a school year disrupted by COVID-19 at its close, attention has now turned to what the beginning of next school year will bring.

Cobb and Marietta students have been learning remotely since they left their school buildings on March 13.

The superintendents of both school districts say they’re not sure whether students will be able to return in-person come August, but are considering their options.

A recent release of guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has prompted a flurry of conversation on the topic.

Local supers: Too soon to tell what fall will bringThough Cobb Schools Superintendent Chris Ragsdale said his district doesn’t yet know what school will look like at the start of the 2020-21 school year, scheduled for Aug. 3, social distancing in the buildings and on buses, as suggested in the CDC’s guidance, would make it impractical to return in person.

As an example, Ragsdale said 75,000 of the district’s 113,000 students ride the bus to school, and if the district was to skip seats on buses, drivers would have to run triple routes, delaying pickups and drop-offs and costing the district money it won’t have.

“With us looking at, potentially, 14% budget cuts, there’s no way that we can implement something that’s going to cost more money and have a budget cut that significant,” he said. “That’s going to have to weigh in to the discussion.”

Of the CDC’s suggestions, Ragsdale said the district is “waiting for the next version of it.”

“(The guidance) is continually changing. ... It’s just far too premature to be trying to make a decision about the start of school,” he said. “That guidance could literally do a 180 over a few days or weeks, and we just need to be cognizant of what the guidance is closer to the start of school. We’re still trying to make decisions on face-to-face graduation ceremonies.”

The guidance is not a requirement to reopen, nor does it require school districts to follow the suggestions upon reopening.

Ragsdale said the district has a team constantly working on developing a plan for how to begin school again in the fall, but he reiterated no decision has been made yet.

“The health and safety of our staff and students are our top priority,” he said. “Each district is going to have to make a decision that’s best for their district. If you have a district that is in the most rural part of Georgia, that could look and need to look differently than (for example) Atlanta Public Schools.”

In Marietta, school Superintendent Grant Rivera said Marietta schools are also too far from the start of the year to have made a decision yet. But, he said district officials have been discussing what a return to school could look like, if in-person classes were to resume.

Rivera noted that with 9,000 students in Marietta schools, his district may be able to be more nimble in how it navigates a return to school than larger districts.

He said he is considering, with help from health officials, ways to allow children to periodically remove their masks or not be required to wear them all day, for instance if they are sitting at a desk with more than 6 feet between them and another student.

He also said the district is floating the idea of purchasing clear masks for kindergarten and pre-K teachers to wear, so that new students aren’t uncomfortable in the school environment altered by COVID-19.

“As educators, we’re going to have to lean on the health experts to guide us as to how we help kids make sense of all this and how we make it practical in the building,” Rivera said, adding that he expects educators will have to receive training related to COVID-19 in the future.

Other considerations to be made include how or whether to limit school visitors and how to screen students and staff prior to their return to school. For example, Rivera said his district is considering whether they can get enough handheld thermometers to implement temperature checks at school entrances. The district has also explored installing for $12,000 to $17,000 temperature scanners on school entrances, but like Ragsdale, Rivera said the expected budget cuts make it difficult to absorb any additional costs.

When it comes to making a decision for fall classes, Rivera concluded: “We’re going to go with whatever the health experts recommend in collaboration with the metro Atlanta superintendents.”

The safety concerns of placing students and staff back in school buildings have to be weighed against the academic concerns of the students and their families, he said. And: “It will not open as well as it closed if we try to do distance learning.”

Lawmakers weigh inState Rep. Teri Anulewicz, D–Smyrna, said the CDC’s guidance for school reopenings provides a simple “if, then” checklist for districts to decide if their community’s level of risk warrants further precautions or if they’re ready to reopen.

Anulewicz said some groups with ulterior motives have taken the CDC’s non-binding suggestions and made them out to be unattainable and required for the start of next school year to further a political agenda.

“Misinformation is cheap and easy,” she said. “Misinformation is just something you say, but now as a result you have people who are misinformed (and) who are scared.”

Anulewicz, a mother of two, said she would love for her children to be able to return to a normal school year in the fall, but “the reality is we don’t know right now if that can happen.”

As just one example of the many considerations that still have to be made, she pointed to the fact that many teachers, bus drivers and other school staff are among an age group that is in high-risk categories for complications from COVID-19.

“Can you force them to come to work?” she said.

Anulewicz said districts will have to make decisions that will best fit their communities’ needs in the months to come, and they’ll have to continually revisit data and status of the virus to do so.

She said Cobb’s status as the second-largest school district in the state means it will likely take more time to provide a plan than much smaller districts.

“You’re talking about turning around a sailboat versus turning around a battleship,” Anulewicz said.

But no matter the decision that will be made for the fall, she said the decision has to be made with the safety of students and staff in mind first, regardless of the pressure to reopen full tilt that might come.

“Their job isn’t to succumb to pressure. There have been all kinds of school districts over the decades in the United States that have been very tempted to succumb to pressure,” she said, noting eras of segregation and not allowing women in education. “Their job is to do what they know is the right decision for the students, for the faculty, for the staff and for administrators.”

State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R–west Cobb, a former Cobb school board chair and member of the Senate Education and Youth Committee, echoed the others, saying in the end, the decision how and when to begin school in the fall will likely rest with individual districts.

Each community has different needs and abilities, he said.

Like Ragsdale, Tippins said many of the measures in the guidance laid out by the CDC — students wearing masks and sanitation of surfaces after virtually any touch — would not be practical if they were to be implemented locally. He said state and local leaders have to come up with a reopening game plan that balances risk with economic and educational impacts.

“I don’t believe we can shut down an entire economy and think that a nation’s going to survive. It’s just economically impossible for that to happen,” he said.

Tippins said K-12-aged students have shown to be at a lower risk for complications from COVID-19, and a more person-specific approach to social distancing, mask wearing and other measures may be more practical for a return to school.

Personalized instruction with teachers and students who are physically present is in most cases critical to the learning process, Tippins said, and therefore anything that districts can do to increase in-person learning will be important to consider.

But, he said, it’s still hard to have a plan when data will likely need to be reevaluated in coming months. Tippins believes it’s reasonable to consider a delay to the start of the school year to allow an in-person return.

“You also have to bear in mind the taxpayers that have supported the educational system, and I think most people have an expectation of 180 days of instruction. And if you don’t do that, the learning of the children are going to be at risk,” he said. “Personally, I think the virus is something we’re going to have to figure out how to live with.”

He said schools should have multiple scenarios prepared for a return in fall, but for now, it’s too soon to tell what will happen.

Tippins, who also chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee, said conversations about how to return to classes at the state’s universities are also ongoing.

CDC guidance

The CDC’s guidance offers school districts considerations for reopening and suggestions to protect staff and students, should they need the suggestions when it is feasible to reopen.

“Schools can determine, in collaboration with state and local health officials to the extent possible, whether and how to implement these considerations while adjusting to meet the unique needs and circumstances of the local community,” the CDC’s guidance reads. “Implementation should be guided by what is feasible, practical, acceptable, and tailored to the needs of each community.”

The CDC identifies three levels of risk for school reopenings.

The highest risk is a return to full size classes and activities in-person with shared materials and supplies. Medium risk combines online and in-person instruction with limited class sizes, limited sharing of materials and staggered schedules. The lowest risk would be continued virtual learning, the documents suggest.

The CDC’s recommendations for “a gradual scale up of activities towards pre-COVID-19 operating practices,” include encouraging students and staff to wash their hands, wear cloth masks and socially distance.

The social distancing suggestions include spacing desks 6 feet apart when feasible; installing physical barriers, such as sneeze guards where students can’t be spaced more than 6 feet; and spacing children on school buses when possible, for example by seating children one child per row or staggering seats.

To view the CDC’s full list of considerations and suggestions, visit www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/schools.html.

Follow Thomas Hartwell on Twitter at twitter.com/MDJThomas.

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