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What Hall County families are saying about students returning to class in person
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Riverbend Elementary second grader Brinna Shirley, reads to teacher Erin Blair on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. - photo by Scott Rogers

Despite her protests, Kathy Bowman’s two grandchildren attended in-person classes at Chestnut Mountain Elementary school on Tuesday. 

Before the first day back, she spoke to her grandchildren about the gravity of the pandemic and the importance of their masks and social distancing. Although, she’s unsure of whether school administrators can protect children from the rising COVID-19 cases.

“The kids wanted to go back to see their friends and be back in class, but the decision made me and still makes me very anxious,” Bowman said.

As of Jan. 20, there were 21,096 total COVID-19 positive cases in Hall County, 2,500 of which occured in the last two weeks, according to the Department of Public Health. 

Hall County Schools returned to an in-person hybrid school schedule Jan. 19, after starting the semester back virtually Jan. 5. System leaders have said they’ll make a decision Jan. 21 on a plan for schooling next week.

The decision came Jan. 14, after Superintendent Will Schofield reported stabilizing COVID-19 numbers and “significantly” decreased student cases.

Bowman took issue with Schofield's announcement, so much so she reached out to school system leadership to address her concerns. She told The Times she felt her concerns were dismissed in a conversation she had by text message with school board member Mark Pettitt.

“He basically dismissed me and told me to have a nice day. He just said the numbers are under control and going down, and he felt it was safe and told me to have a nice day,” Bowman said. “That was the end of the conversation.” 

The text message thread obtained by The Times from both Bowman and Pettitt shows that Pettitt told her team member numbers have stabilized and student numbers have decreased significantly.

Stan Lewis, Hall’s community relations director said the administration was aware stakeholders and families would have differing opinions about holding in-person classes during a pandemic, which is why they allowed parents to choose whether to remain fully online. Those decisions were due before Thanksgiving.

Pettitt told Bowman that as well and appears to have ended the longer conversation with, "Thank you for your feedback."

Although the deadline to select the virtual learning model has passed, Lewis said if parents find themselves seeking a change under unique circumstances, they can reach out to the school's principal or administration.

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A Riverbend Elementary student makes his way to buses Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, as Hall County Schools return to in-person learning on a hybrid schedule at all Hall County Schools. - photo by Scott Rogers

Jeremy Williams, superintendent of the Gainesville City School System, said over 50% of families requested to return to in-person classes. He said the school system is not in the position to allow families to alter their decision “due to scheduling, personnel needs, and services.” 

Lewis said the first day back in classrooms went “well” and reported there is a lower number of positives among team members. Due to the smaller numbers of students in schools so far, Lewis said the system is able to focus on protocol and assess COVID-19 cases and numbers. 

On Jan. 14,  Lewis confirmed there were 48 staff positives, which decreased to 42 on Jan. 15. On Jan 19, it was down to 29 of 86 total COVID absences for students and staff and up to 36 staff absences the next day for 114 total. The system reports COVID absences for each school on its website

“We feel we are in a really good place,” Lewis said. 

Parents Meredith Pierce and Colleen Erin agreed with Lewis. Both mothers said they’re confident in the transparency and research conducted within the county, which is why they chose for their children to return to in-person classes. Pierce, who has two children at North Hall High School, said her children miss the social interaction that comes inside the classroom. Her children would prefer to return “all the way” instead of in the hybrid model but would rather be in school with a mask, than sitting at home. 

Erin’s daughter's anxiety factored into the family’s decision to return to in-person classes. Last semester, Erin chose the virtual learning option. Her daughter spent the last few months anxious to reunite with her friends, teachers and an in-person setting. 

Unlike last semester, Erin said she’s confident in the number of COVID-19 cases among schools and in the superintendent’s decisions. 

“I’m excited to see her with her friends again, her smiling and learning like we all did before the pandemic,” Erin said. “The county and numbers are saying COVID-19 isn’t spreading in schools, and I’m confident in that.”

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Some Riverbend Elementary students attend classes Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, as Hall County Schools return to in-person learning on a hybrid schedule. - photo by Scott Rogers

After analyzing the recent COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and contact tracing, Morgan Brick decided it was too soon to send his high schooler at North Hall back to in-person learning. While Brick is proud of the Hall County staff and administration, he doesn’t believe Schofield had enough information when deciding to send students back into classrooms. 

Brick said the announcement Thursday was too late in the week for parents to properly adjust and plan ahead. Brick said he worries the return of students will throw a kink into the recent vaccinations teachers have received, in the case that COVID-19 positive cases rise. 

Brick also fears families may have vacationed or celebrated the three-day weekend. After hearing that local hospitals remain at full capacity and the U.S. reached 400,000 deaths due to COVID-19, Brick’s doesn’t believe children should return to classrooms just yet. 

“My daughter can’t wait to be back in the building; she is competitive and sociable, but she wants to come back in a safe manner,” Brick said. “So we’re waiting until we feel safe enough, and I don’t think she’s part of an experiment to bring students back.”

Williams said a decision about whether next week will be fully in-person will be made on Jan. 21. 

A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a conversation Bowman had with school leadership. Bowman communicated with Hall County Board of Education member Mark Pettitt by text message. Bowman's name was also misspelled.

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