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The first day of school for Grady County children has been delayed until September 8 and whether or not the fall sports season will be delayed or canceled remains very much up in the air.
The Grady County Board of Education convened last Thursday evening for a budget workshop, but it was not long before the discussion turned to the reopening of school.
With the number of positive cases of COVID-19 on the rise here and with additional time needed to train teachers to teach students through the computer in a virtual setting, Grady County Schools superintendent, Dr. Kermit Gilliard, recommended the board delay the beginning of school until Tuesday, Sept. 8. School had previously been set to reopen here on Aug. 7.
The superintendent came to the conclusion to delay the reopening of school after participating in a conference call last week with the superintendents of the Thomas County School System and the Thomasville City School System along with Southwest Health District director Dr. Charles Ruis.
“Dr. Ruis noted that our numbers are up quite a bit and he would not recommend starting school in two weeks, but he can’t make that call. That call is left up to you (the board) and me,” Dr. Gilliard said.
Officials had been told last Wednesday that the State Board of Education was likely to take up a resolution to delay reopening of schools at its July 23 meeting, but that topic never made it on the agenda, according to Dr. Gilliard.
In addition to hopefully giving the virus time to subside locally, the superintendent said the county’s teachers would benefit from some additional time to be trained on virtual instruction.
As of Friday, 549 children have been enrolled in virtual learning and will most likely not be returning to the school building for instruction. Dr. Gilliard anticipates that number growing to 1,000 or more of the approximately 4,600 students enrolled in the county’s public schools.
Board member John White questioned if the superintendent was recommending a reduction of instructional days in order for school to end next May as has been the recent tradition.
Dr. Gilliard said his intention at delaying the reopening of school was not to make the year shorter, but he said he did not know exactly how far into June the school year would stretch.
It is also likely that fall break, some days at Thanksgiving and possibly spring break would be eliminated or shortened, according to the superintendent.
“Our kids have already missed so much,” White said. The school board member also voiced his concern for younger students remaining in the home and taking part in the virtual program.
“You’ve got to have a parent there. The older kids are a little more disciplined, but at a young age it will be hard to stay on track without supervision,” board vice chairman Derrick Majors said.
Dr. Gilliard said that children under the age of 8 are supposed to be under adult supervision and not left alone in the home. Assistant school superintendent, Janet Walden, said that local school officials realized that in some homes that may not be a reality.
The superintendent said that Dr. Katina Cooper, director of social services for the system, would monitor closely for children who are not enrolled in the virtual program or do not come back for school at the school buildings. Dr. Gilliard said staff would be made available to assist Dr. Gloria Fuller, who oversees the system’s virtual school program, to monitor student work and progress throughout the year.
Teachers countywide will be equipped with new computers that the superintendent said will be installed and ready for service, hopefully by the end of next week. However, laptops and tablets for all students will not be delivered until some time in October.
In addition to concerns about students, Dr. Gilliard told board members that teachers and other personnel have expressed concerns about returning to school. The system is also anticipating issues with being able to provide substitute teachers when needed. The superintendent said that paraprofessional teachers would be utilized as well as central office staff and administrators to cover classes as needed.
Board member White broached the subject of fall sports describing it as an “uncomfortable” subject at this juncture.
“How can we allow fans in stands to watch a ball game and expect our numbers to go down?” White asked.
Dr. Gilliard briefed the board on Cairo High School athletic director Tom Fallaw’s work on developing a required infectious disease plan, which is being developed with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The superintendent and Fallaw met Tuesday evening with Dr. Jason NeSmith, Dr. Jonathan Lynch and physician’s assistant Kerry Dinkins to review the proposed plan.
“After meeting with these local medical professionals, I am very concerned about the fall sports season. They have suggested some revisions to the plan and our athletic director will make those changes and present it to the board for its approval at the Aug. 11 board meeting,” Dr. Gilliard said.
“Our student safety has to be our number one concern. If we can’t go to school, how can we practice sports and have the band rehearsing every day?” the superintendent asked.
Board member White said that even if the system is able to enforce social distancing in the stands, it is practically impossible to prevent people from congregating after the sporting events, just like what happened following the recent high school graduation ceremony.
Board member Worsham pointed out that even though the Georgia High School Association had delayed the opening of high school football until Sept. 4, other sports such as softball were already scheduled to begin in early August.
Dr. Gilliard said the board would have to consider the future for band and choral classes as well. According to the superintendent, state officials have consistently advised against having band and chorus classes at this time.
Worsham said that school officials would be “damned if you do or damned if don’t” by delaying the start of school or postponing or canceling the fall sports season. “It’s a tough decision we’ve got to make. If I were kin, I would say ‘no’ but no is not the right thing,” he added.
Board chairwoman Teresa Gee Hardy, who participated in last week’s workshop via conference call, said that everyone would like to see schools reopened and children back in the classroom, however, she said the additional time would be well spent for teachers to be trained and prepared in the event schools had to close back down in the fall.
Worsham predicted for the rest of the year and possibly into the future there would be a mix of students going to school in-person and others would remain involved through the virtual program. Dr. Gilliard agreed and commented, “the face of education has changed forever and it will never go back.”
“We are teaching tomorrow’s leaders. We don’t want to fail on that,” vice chairman Majors commented.
Dr. Gilliard told The Messenger Tuesday that additional information regarding the virtual instruction program would be made available to parents early next week and also a new online registration would go live. The superintendent urged parents who were contemplating enrolling their child or children in virtual school but had not yet done so, to wait and utilize the online registration next week.
The Grady County School System is partnering with Edmentum, Inc. of Bloomington, Minnesota for its new online learning program. Officials picked Edmentum after meeting with officials from other school systems to determine the pros and cons of various providers.
Dr. Gilliard says that students enrolled in Crossroads would be taught with Edmentum’s instructors, while students in K-12 would be taught by local teachers using the Edmentum platform.
Assistant superintendent Walden said that Edmentum’s program meets the needs of the local system while at the same time meeting the state’s standards.
Teachers will return to work for one day of work this Friday, July 31, and then will report back on Aug. 17 to prepare for the reopening of school. New personnel were required to work at least one day in July to be eligible for their insurance benefits, which resulted in this Friday being a work day for school system employees.