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.
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.