By Ben Brasch, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga
Fulton County Schools officials will begin bringing some students back into classrooms Sept. 21, with hopes a full return to live schooling on Oct. 14 — if coronavirus case trends continue to improve.
Officials this week began asking families whether they are willing to let their children attend a single day of in-person schooling per week. Schools are sending families opt-in forms that are due Friday.
The groupings of students returning together will be determined alphabetically by last name. Officials stressed that remote learning will continue to be an option all school year.
“We’re only able to do this because the data is trending down,” Superintendent Mike Looney told school board members last week when he presented the plan. According to COVID-19 data on Monday, Fulton has had 26,225 cases and 555 deaths.
The district turned virtual on March 13, six months ago, to slow the spread of COVID-19. It was the first district in Metro Atlanta to do so.
But students’ school experience will not be like the one they left. Football stadiums will be limited to 30 percent occupancy for games. Marching bands won’t travel. There will be temperature checks and masks and hand sanitizer everywhere.
The opt-in forms also ask parents if they are willing to send their child to two days per week of in-person instruction by Oct. 5, and for the full return Oct. 15. There are no deadline for those decisions yet, but officials say it would be helpful if families answered the questions so staff can plan.
Asked when the deadlines would come for the two-day and full return options, Superintendent Mike Looney said the district will likely announce their decision a week before each starting date.
Looney said at the Sept. 8 meeting that families will not be able to switch between in-person and remote.
“We’re asking for a commitment,” he said.
“But to be clear: We are going to have students who test positive. We are going to have students who are going to have to self-quarantine as a result of being exposed to someone. So there are going to be situations where universal remote is going to the most appropriate educational application even if the parent had chosen face-to-face initially,” Looney said.
As for a sense of how many students will chose to return, incomplete survey data from Friday shows that about 47 percent of 10,200 respondents indicated they would send their children back to face-to-face learning. Thirty-four percent wanted to stay virtual, and 18 percent were undecided.
Katie Reeves, a school board member representing the most northern part of Fulton, said she has heard concerns about the added work if teachers are doing instruction for both a live class and those online.
“This is an imperfect process,” Looney said.
Board member Linda McCain, who also represents North Fulton, asked if Looney would be willing to have one part of the county’s schools more open than the others if there’s an outbreak, or would all schools open and close together.
When the virus first appeared in a cluster of schools in southern Fulton, some Northside families wondered why they had to stop going to school when the virus was some 40 or 50 miles away.
Looney said “we’re prepared” to split up different parts of the county, or shut down single classrooms if the outbreak isn’t as bad.
However, he noted where the problem is in Fulton: “The segments of our community that are currently experiencing the highest growth happens to be in the northern section of the county.”