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Hall high and middle schools operating virtually due to COVID concerns
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Andrew Autry, a senior at East Hall High School, finishes up his school work through the Canvas program Friday, Dec. 11. East Hall canceled in-person classes earlier this month due to a rising number of COVID cases, switching students to online work from home, instead. Photo courtesy Andrew Autry.

Update Dec. 15: Riverbend Elementary School will move its students to remote instruction beginning Wednesday, Dec. 16. The school has experienced a "significant increase in teacher and staff absences for quarantine and positive cases of COVID-19, the Hall County School District announced on Tuesday.

"We are finding it a challenge to adequately staff the building and deliver instruction," the announcement said.

Update, Dec. 14: All Hall middle and high schools will switch to blended learning Wednesday, Dec. 16, to Friday, Dec. 18. Schools will restart after the winter break on a hybrid schedule.

On Friday, Chestatee High School became the fifth Hall County school to cancel in-person classes because of COVID-19 absences.

Students will shift temporarily to at-home assignments starting Monday, Dec. 14, and running through at least Wednesday, Dec. 16. The system’s last day before winter break is Dec. 18.

On Friday, Chestatee High had 10 students and three staff absent with positive COVID-19 cases. The quarantine numbers obtained by The Times were 53 students and two staff members by the end of Friday. 

The latest number of absences due to positive COVID-19 tests is reported by the school system on its website. Those numbers do not include those quarantined for exposure.

Three of the four Hall schools that had already temporarily shifted to at-home school had that extended on Friday. C.W. Davis Middle School will remain closed through Tuesday, Dec. 15, and Cherokee Bluff high and middle schools through Wednesday, Dec. 16, said Stan Lewis, Hall’s community relations director.

Lewis said Davis Middle families will learn by Monday whether there will be another extension, and Chestatee and Cherokee Bluff families will hear by Tuesday.

Meanwhile, East Hall High School is still on track to restart in-person learning on Monday after switching Monday, Dec. 7, to at-home learning. 

Lewis said the extensions were made due to the number of absences related to COVID-19. 

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“We haven’t seen a big reduction in quarantine or positive numbers to warrant moving back to in-person learning,” he said. 

Kevin Bales, Hall’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said in an ideal situation, middle and high schoolers should experience a smooth transition from in-person to at-home learning. 

He said students attending in person have already been using Canvas, a virtual learning management program, in their day-to-day classes and are familiar with it.

Andrew Autry, a senior at East Hall High, said the transition hasn’t proved a challenge because “it’s the same stuff, just online.”

“It (the change) wasn’t super big, since we’ve already known about Canvas and how that’s going to work,” he said. “I’m hoping we’ll return. It’s easier for me to focus on my work in person rather than online.”

Allie Ladd, a senior at East Hall High, said daily agendas have always been posted on Canvas, even before undergoing “blended learning,” the district’s name for the temporary moves to online school.

Depending on the teacher, Ladd said she may receive a video announcement in the morning with instructions or typed guidelines on how to access specific assignments. 

“The only difference was having to get up and having the discipline to do it myself,” Ladd said. 

When she has questions, Ladd simply emails her teachers through Canvas.

Next semester, Ladd will star as Ariel in her school’s musical production of “The Little Mermaid.”

Over the past week, instead of rehearsing with fellow students, Ladd said she has practiced the songs at home. 

“We’re focusing on getting the music down and get it really solid before we attempt to block it out on stage,” she said. “We’ve learned all the music already.”

Ladd said she is looking forward to returning to school, because she prefers the in-person learning environment.

“Toward the end of the (school) year, when we did online learning, I was really not retaining information at all,” she said. “I was really glad we had the option to do in-person, or else I don’t think I’d be doing as well as I am right now.”

The Gainesville City School district still plans to offer in-person instruction for all five days next week, Superintendent Jeremy Williams said. 

The week of Dec. 7-11, the system saw a drop in new COVID-19 cases among students and staff in the district, decreasing from 35 the previous week to 22.

By the end of Friday, Williams said Gainesville had 11 cases with students and 11 with staff. He said nine of that total came from Gainesville High School.

“We are still seeing the fallout from Thanksgiving,” he said. “We’re also not naive enough to believe these are all the cases. These are the ones we’ve been made aware of.”

Like Hall County Schools, Williams said his district would make the decision to cancel in-person classes based on two factors: If evidence is found of transmission occurring at a school and if a facility doesn't have enough staff to operate.

“One thing we’re not going to do is go based on emotion,” he said. “We’ll continue to look at data.”

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