The superintendents of Gainesville and Hall County schools said Thursday that COVID-19 infection in schools is not a matter of “if” but “when” and laid out how they would do their best to continue the best instruction possible during the pandemic.
In a webinar with the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce on July 23, the two men warned that, despite detailed preparation and plans for various scenarios, the upcoming school year will be uncertain.
Both school districts are planning for a return to in-person school on Aug. 17 but are allowing families to choose, with registration, a 100% online option as well. However, Gainesville Superintendent Jeremy Williams and Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield said schools could be forced by an outbreak of COVID-19 to return to virtual learning at any time. Both superintendents pointed out that they continue to see an uptick in the number of students and staff who are reporting that they have COVID-19.
Williams and Schofield also noted that state leadership may choose to mandate a delay for the start of all public schools in the state until later. It had been reported that the Georgia school board, which also met on Thursday morning, was preparing to consider a delay for public schools in the state until after Labor Day. That item was "barely referenced" during the board's meeting, according to the Associated Press.
Both superintendents say plans for an in-person start to the school year could still change in coming weeks. An official decision will come later, they said.
In-person school in Hall
Schofield began his comments with sharp criticisms of those who have sought to politicize COVID-19, as well as the wearing of masks to prevent its spread:
“I’ve been incredibly dismayed that we could take something as serious (and) as wide-reaching as a pandemic and begin to politicize it,” he said, adding that he recognizes there will be times when keeping masks on students will present challenges. “In the Hall County School District, we will be wearing masks. … If you think that’s a political statement, then stay at home, do virtual school and don’t wear a mask. But I’m not going to tell my 65-year-old employees with underlying health conditions, ‘I’m not sure masks really make a difference.’ We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if we can get everybody to put the doggone masks on when you’re around people, we’ll have less infection, we’ll protect more people and you know what? I can sleep at night with a lot of folks mad at me as long as we’re doing what we think protects the individuals that work (in) and go to our schools.”
Schofield said he’d received complaints from many families who accuse him of making a dangerous decision in returning to school in person. But, he said, there is no right answer for the new school year.
“There are costs and benefits associated with both,” he said, adding that not returning to school has been affecting the families most in need.
Schofield said virtual school has already risked lives of some students who, on top of their academics, have to deal with isolation and abuse at home or other potentially dangerous mental health concerns, such as depression or suicidality. Others, he said, rely on school meals to get by.
In-person school could provide those children with counseling support from school social workers and consistent meals, Schofield said. In-person school can also help prevent a “catastrophic” slide in literacy and numeracy skills, especially for younger students.
“We will never make those up,” he said.
About two-thirds of families in the district of more than 27,000 students are choosing to return to in-person school, Schofield said. Another 18% have chosen virtual, and 15% are undecided so far.
“We know that those numbers are very fluid and that they’ll change," he said. "And we will do our best to accommodate folks as we move forward.”
In terms of precautions for the upcoming in-person schooling plan, Schofield said people will be required to sanitize their hands when they board a school bus and staff will be required to wear masks while students are expected to wear them. His presentation in the webinar showed staff will encourage proper hand washing, water fountains will be shut off and hand sanitizer will be readily available. Cafeterias will operate at 50% capacity, and some meals will be provided in classrooms.
Social distancing will be enforced where possible, but Schofield said the district cannot purchase additional buses and hire additional drivers to create additional routes to spread students out.
Staff and students will be asked to self-screen for a fever and other symptoms before they enter Hall schools, Schofield said. Visitors, he added, will be extremely limited.
He said Hall County Schools will decide whether to move to remote learning based on community spread of the virus, as well as how many cases are in the school system and other factors.
“I can only commit to this community … that we will do our dead-level best to weigh those pros and cons and try to make it as positive as we can for everybody and protect, until our fingers bleed, the health of our students and the health of our employees,” he said. “And that is not an easy task.”
In-person school in Gainesville
In his district, Williams said most students have so far elected to come back to school in person next month. But he began the back-to-school discussion with a warning to the community:
“Traditionally, we’re all used to going to school, but we also have to be very realistic that at any point, we may have to transition to remote instruction, whether that’s a classroom, a grade level, a school or the district.”
Like in Hall, the decision to move a portion or all students to remote learning during the school year, he said, will be determined by the severity of the spread of the virus in schools and in the community.
Williams said students and staff will be required to wear masks in classrooms and on the bus, and masks will also be required for visitors who come indoors. He also said those students and staff who report symptoms of the virus will be asked not to report to school facilities.
“With some of the information we received about the air droplets and some of the lingering effects … we wanted to be safe,” he said, adding that he’d received positive responses from parents and employees for the decision. “We felt like we can always back off that guidance if we need to, but it would be very difficult to step that guidance up.”
Other measures in place to curb the spread will include encouraging students and staff to social distance and wash their hands frequently; shutting off of all water fountains in buildings and encouraging families to complete daily temperature checks and health screenings before coming to school.
In classrooms, Williams said social distancing will not be feasible.
“I can’t put 12 kids in a classroom and spread them out 6 feet apart,” he said. “That’s another reason we went the mask route, is to reduce possible transmission in those environments.”
Pre-K through eighth grade students will stay with one cohort all day to also help reduce exposure to others, and physical interaction generally will be limited, according to Williams’ presentation.
Daily meals will be provided in classrooms or in smaller rotations into the lunchroom, with cleaning in between groups.
Similarly, Williams said it would be impossible for the district to double its number of buses and drivers to allow additional routes and therefore social distancing on buses. He said the district is, however, encouraging families to drive their children to school or secure other forms of personal transportation, if they’re able to do so.
Williams reiterated that if in-person school can begin immediately on Aug. 17, the community should expect that “we’re going to have to shift to remote instruction at some point.”
“Whether that’s that grade level, classrooms, school or system, there’s going to be an infection and it’s going to have an impact, not only on someone who tests positive, but those who were in close contact with someone who tests positive,” he said.
Online learning in the districts
Schofield said digital learning “is not equal to in-person learning,” and said the younger the student, the more difficult it is for them to learn virtually. He also pointed out that in some cases, there may be seven students in one home sharing one device with internet connectivity and others may not have internet at all.
Schofield added that he is “not in the position to do anything about internet connectivity in a home,” but said the district will provide students with devices to use and make families aware of WiFi hot spots to use around the community.
Hall schools in March provided 17,000 devices to students in a single weekend and have secured the return of more than 99.5%, he said. Every student can be provided a device if need be, he said, but the district is encouraging families to use their own laptops or other devices if they can.
Meanwhile, Williams said about 19% of Gainesville schools families, representing about 1,500 students, have so far expressed interest in attending online.
“It has definitely grown, especially as we see (COVID-19) numbers locally continue to increase.”
The Northeast Georgia Health System is treating 168 COVID-19 patients as of Thursday, 104 of whom are in Gainesville. Thursday’s numbers represent an increase of nine from the day before and 80 from the week before. It is a new record for COVID-19 patients being treated, beating a record of 159 set on April 29.
Some families have said they are uncomfortable with the potential back-and-forth between in-person and online learning that will come this year, and others have elected the virtual option because a family member is immuno-compromised, Williams said.
The Gainesville superintendent said the district will be far better prepared for online learning than it was when schools across the state and country abruptly closed their doors in March.
“We want parents to know that the frustrations they might have experienced from March to May will be more streamlined,” he said.
To assist families who may not have reliable internet access or a device to use for digital learning, Williams said his district has a “limited number of hot spots,” and will hopefully have enough Chromebooks to provide to all students by the end of August. He said Gainesville City Schools has ordered 4,000 more.
The Gainesville City school board also recently approved up to $40,000 for the purchase of WiFi antennas to be installed at schools in the district to help increase internet connectivity. Those access points are designed for people to walk or drive up to and operate under the school's internet filter, meaning users cannot search inappropriate or otherwise unauthorized sites.
Williams told The Times after the webinar that the antennas are another way the district is trying to help families get connected. He said most families live close enough to a school to walk or drive up and use them, but if they do not, the district will work with the family to get them a WiFi hot spot. Otherwise, paper packets of school work will be provided to families who do not have internet access, he said.
Like in Hall County, Williams said his district is weighing the costs and benefits of in-person and remote learning.
He also pointed to research he said showed that one year of ineffective school instruction equates to a three-year recovery period, and back-to-back years of ineffective instruction means recovery isn’t possible.
“What we can’t allow to happen is that remote instruction … creates ineffective instruction, where kids can no longer catch up,” he said.