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With the keyword being “flexible” Grady County School Superintendent Dr. Kermit Gilliard has released the system’s plan for reopening schools on August 7.
The Grady County Board of Education unanimously approved the revised school calendar for the 2020-2021 term delaying the reopening of school by four days to give school personnel additional time to for training in virtual instruction.
The revised calendar also reduces the length of the fall break from one week to three days for students, Oct. 8, 9 and 12. October 8 will be a teacher workday and school staffs will be off Oct. 9 and 12.
Even with the revisions, the calendar includes 178 days of school for children, but Dr. Gilliard warned that depending on the situation with COVID-19, reopening on Aug. 7 could change.
While state officials have indicated that they would not dictate whether schools should open or not, Dr. Gilliard said it would be up to the board and himself to make those decisions on a local level based on the situation locally.
Considering the recent uptick of positive cases, according to Dr. Gilliard, Public Health recommendations would be against reopening schools at this time.
The superintendent said he hoped to know more by Friday, July 24 whether or not the level of positive cases would cause the reopening of schools to be delayed.
“I’m not going to do anything that would put people in danger. If a parent doesn’t want their child to go back to school, don’t send them, but if you don’t send them back and they do not sign up for virtual learning, Dr. (Katina) Cooper will come looking for you,” Dr. Gilliard said.
Public Health officials have also recommended to cancel band and chorus in public schools under the circumstances, however, the superintendent is not recommending that at this time.
“If you’re not going to have band and chorus, there is no way you can say you can have sports. It makes no sense to me, whatsoever,” board member John White said, agreeing with Dr. Gilliard to offer both band and chorus.
However, board member Gerald Goosby suggested that it may be that the system cannot offer band, chorus or sports depending on the situation with the spread of COVID-19.
Dr. Gilliard said the system would proceed with current course offerings and “see what happens.”
The superintendent is awaiting a larger sampling of surveys from the parents and guardians of the approximately 4,600 students in finalizing reopening plans. Surveys of the teachers and school system staff indicate a majority favor returning to face-to-face instruction in the school building while about 25 percent support a blend of virtual instruction and face-to-face teaching.
Less than 500 of the surveys mailed late last week have been returned. Board member Goosby asked if there was a deadline to respond and Dr. Gilliard said a specific deadline was not advertised, but that if surveys could be returned by Friday it would be helpful in finalizing the reopening plan.
Regardless, the laptops that have been ordered for students systemwide are not likely to be delivered until October, which means students who choose to return to school virtually must have computers and internet access provided by parents. The system has already identified approximately 25 percent of the county’s student population that does not have access to high-speed internet at home.
Dr. Gilliard said if another shutdown of school occurs, he is hopeful it is not until Thanksgiving or later so that the student laptops will be here.
The superintendent said he and his administrative team have been working since March making plans for the reopening of school. He also said that many of the ideas that have been built into the plan come from the plans that are being used by other systems across the state.
Dr. Gilliard has been meeting weekly with the other superintendents from across southwest Georgia and routinely with other superintendents from across the state involved in a Superintendent Leadership Network through the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.
The superintendent told board members Tuesday night he has requested information from Public Heath officials regarding the number of positive cases locally in school aged children. “I’m not aware of any at this time, but I believe that would be useful information to have as we plan to reopen,” Dr. Gilliard said.
Although the school system cannot mandate the use of facial masks, Dr. Gilliard said that masks would be highly recommended not only for students but also for faculty and staff.
The school system will make masks available to those who need them with 30,000 having been ordered and Dr. Gilliard is expecting between 3,000-5,000 from the state. The school system has also ordered a large supply of hand sanitizer, purchased hand sanitizing stations, and water bottle refill stations. “All water fountains will be shut off,” Dr. Gilliard said in compliance with Public Health regulations.
Board member Goosby questioned if students would have their temperatures checked before entering the school buildings.
“It would be impossible to check 4,600 children’s temperatures before 8 a.m. I don’t know how we could do it. We are going to have to trust parents not to send their children to school if they suspect they are running a fever, even though we’ve had parents send children to school with Tylenol and shortly after they are sick and had to be sent home,” Dr. Gilliard said.
Goosby suggested purchasing screening stations that can be set up at the entrances to the schools and it automatically screens students as they enter. Dr. Gilliard said that Mitchell County Schools had used some of its federal pandemic relief aid to purchase the stations at an estimated cost of $3,000 each per entrance. The superintendent said he did not think the system could afford to buy them.
The board also discussed the plans for cleaning and sanitizing the schools. Dr. Gilliard said the system is already suffering from a shortage of janitors and is not really in a position to afford to hire more. System officials have been in discussion with private vendors about the possibility of outsourcing the janitorial services.
“In my 30 years, we have had outside groups come in twice. It works well for a little while and then everyone wants to go back,” Dr. Gilliard said.
Another shortage expected is with substitute teachers. Dr. Gilliard said since the pool of local substitute teachers is older, they are unlikely to want to report for duty with cases of the virus on an upward momentum. Dr. Gilliard said they would have to shift paraprofessionals to help cover classes as well as central office personnel.
Dr. Gilliard told board members that food service at each school would be handled differently. For example, at Southside Elementary School the former media center is not currently being used and the plan is to set up tables in it to space out children and to utilize that floor space in addition to the cafeteria. At Eastside, due to the smallness of its cafeteria, the plan is to split up grades with some classes eating in their classroom part of the week and then part of the week in the cafeteria.
For the foreseeable future, visitors to schools will be prohibited and parents will not be allowed to come on campus to eat with their children. Dr. Gilliard said that parents would be asked not to walk students to class once schools reopen.
“I know it will be hard for some,” Dr. Gilliard said.
“The Pre-K teachers will love it,” board Chairwoman Teresa Gee Hardy responded.
“None of us make these decisions lightly. I was almost physically sick on Sunday worrying about this. This is new for everybody and we are not the only ones going through this. There is no perfect answer,” Chairwoman Hardy said.
Board member White strongly expressed his opinion that children must get back to school or they could quickly be a year behind. He also questioned if the system would be monitoring progress of students who opt for virtual instruction.
Dr. Gilliard said that the software the system uses monitors progress and that progress is monitored internally by Virtual School Director Dr. Gloria Fuller. The superintendent said that Dr. Fuller makes contact with parents and students to insure students are keeping current with their assignments. The superintendent says that if as many students opt for virtual learning as some predict, Dr. Fuller will need additional help to monitor progress and make personal contact with students and parents.
A key to moving forward will be the results of the parent surveys, according to Dr. Gilliard. He said once they know how many children will not be returning to the brick and mortar school, classes can be rearranged and teachers assigned to virtual instruction. As an example, the superintendent said one first grade teacher may be teaching a first grade class virtually to 30 students from all five elementary schools.
“We all want to go back to school, but in order to do that we must have a safe learning environment and make sure we are taking the necessary steps to put that in place,” board member Goosby said.
Dr. Gilliard agreed and noted that it would take everyone working together to get back in the routine. He pointed out that students had been out of school for five months already.
Dr. Gilliard also stressed that all of the reopening planning that is being made public this week is subject to change and likely will be revised in the coming days and weeks based on the real-time situation.
School officials urge all local parents to return their survey(s) as soon as possible.