It’s been about a month since the Hall County and Gainesville City schools students returned to the classroom, and The Times sat down with local superintendents this Tuesday to see how things have gone so far.
Hall Superintendent Will Schofield and Gainesville Superintendent Jeremy Williams provided updates on everything from new school procedures and protocols, to contact tracing to extracurriculars and athletics.
Here are some of the key takeaways from Tuesday’s event.
SCHOOLS STAYING OPEN, BUT CLASSES STARTING TO CLOSE
Both superintendents acknowledged that an increase in COVID-19 cases within schools could lead to entire schools or even districts shutting down, and while that hasn’t happened at that level yet, individual classrooms in both school systems have already had to go into quarantine.
Williams said two classrooms within the Gainesville City School System are currently quarantined, adding that the lack of availability of substitute teachers when a school employee tests positive has been a difficult challenge to overcome.
Schofield said Hall County currently has one class quarantined, and while no full schools have had to be shut down, he did leave that possibility open further down the line.
"We’re one day away from quarantines every day,” he said. “I hope it does not occur. We’re ready for it, and it certainly would not be a surprise if it gets to that point.”
WEAR A MASK OR STAY AT HOME
Williams and Schofield both affirmed that the school districts will not be lenient with mask wearing.
Students and employees at Hall and Gainesville schools are all required to wear masks while inside school buildings, and neither district is making any exceptions. Schofield said all Hall County students who refuse to wear face coverings will be switched to virtual if they do not comply with the mandate.
“You certainly have the right to believe that face coverings don’t make a difference,” he said. “We believe that they do, starting with me and with our board of education. … If we have a student that says ‘My mom says I’m not wearing a mask at this school,’ we’ll just put an arm around them, figuratively, and say ‘That’s just fine, we need to give mom a call and we will switch you over to digital learning.’”
Williams said Gainesville would follow the same procedure for students refusing to wear a mask, but that the school system has not had to switch any students over to virtual learning for that reason.
"Some may forget, but as soon as we remind them or provide them a backup mask, they’re fine, and they move right along,“ he said.
SLIGHTLY DIFFERING STANCES ON CLUBS
The Hall County and Gainesville City school districts are following similar plans for the return to in-person learning, but one area in which they differ is extracurricular activities and clubs.
In Hall County schools, clubs are meeting in person while maintaining the same social distancing and mask wearing mandates required for students during school hours.
“Certainly clubs and extracurriculars are a large part of what a school experience is,” Schofield said.
At Gainesville, clubs are only meeting virtually, but Williams did say the school system has plans to relax those restrictions soon. Additionally, while no drama performances have taken place in the Hall County School District, Williams said the Gainesville High School drama department was able to put on a show with a small cast and spectators limited to just 60.
Neither district, however, has allowed any full-scale performances with larger cast sizes like schools would put on during a normal year.
“We’re going to do everything we can to make things as normal as possible,” Williams said. “But then it may mean we have to pivot when it comes time to have a cast of 50 going up to do a musical performance. It’s learning how to navigate in COVID.”
FUTURE STILL UNCLEAR
The superintendents were noncommittal when asked about the future for the school districts, with Williams saying it’s impossible to project out “the next two weeks, or really even tomorrow.”
He said Gainesville schools has plans to open a few areas – including playgrounds and cafeterias – in the coming weeks. The school system does not have plans to relax any of its precautionary procedures though.
Schofield was in strong agreement.
“Until we see significantly lower community spread and a period of weeks or even a month or two where we’ve seen very little spread, we won’t be changing mitigation practices,” he said.
The superintendents added that procedures and protocols schools are required to follow may be extended into the spring semester as well but said that it was too early to make any definitive decisions on that matter.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Schofield and Williams both said cooperation from the community would be crucial to keeping schools open for in-person learning. The superintendents suggested that the most impactful action families can take to help is to keep their kids at home when any member of the family is feeling sick.
Schofield mentioned that there are parents sending sick students to school every week, and he asked those parents to consider the ripple effects that can cause.
Williams agreed with Scholfield, adding that the more consistent you can keep the “pod” of friends and family you encounter, the less likely you are to contract COVID-19.
“The more we’re out there mixing it up and going to new places or different places, the harder it’s going to be to contact trace and keep it at a minimum,” he said. “But if people keep their core consistent while still living their life, at least then we’re able to minimize it, I believe, as much as possible.”