FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — The Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce held its annual State of the Schools address Aug. 4 with school officials reporting in an environment radically different than years prior. The event was a hybrid in-person and virtual event.

Forsyth Schools Superintendent Jeff Bearden and Nancy Roche, chair of the Forsyth County Board of Education, laid out plans for the fall term and addressed concerns as the county is on the precipice of a school year like no other.

Much of the Q&A session with Bearden and Roche centered around social distancing at schools. Bearden said there are various protocols in place to stifle the spread of COVID-19, but he was clear that social distancing is impossible in certain confines of schools.

“I don’t want to mislead anybody in terms of can you social distance in classrooms, no you cannot,” Bearden said. “You cannot have 6-feet social distance on a bus. We have put procedures and protocols in place to mitigate the risk of exposure, but there is nothing we can do to completely eliminate the risk of exposure.” Bearden said.

Instead, the county has set guidelines in what it hopes will limit the virus spread. Bearden said desks in all classrooms will face the same direction. There will be limited movement of students, water fountains will be turned off, there will be no large gatherings, and students are encouraged to bring their own water bottles, hand sanitizer and technology to school. Seats will be assigned on all busses and classrooms.

He added the school system has expectations that all students and staff will wear masks. They will be required for bus drivers and food service workers.

While the county has its own guidelines, Bearden said each school may vary in how they handle students in classrooms that are specific to each school. Mashburn Elementary and Lambert High School are examples of how different some of the county’s schools are from one another, he said, and the same set of protocols would not likely fit for both facilities.

Parents concerned over their child’s risk of exposure should contact their school’s administration for its specific plans.

Reaction to infection may vary

If a student or staff member does test positive for COVID-19, the assigned seating charts will provide information on who may have been within 6 feet of that person for 20 minutes or more. However, a positive case or cases does not necessarily equal a shutdown, Bearden said. Depending on the situation, the closure of one classroom, a cluster of classrooms or one school may be shut down.

Forsyth Schools are giving families a choice of either in-class or virtual learning, and Bearden said about 20 to 25 percent have opted to learn digitally this year. The percentages of students learning from home varies greatly from school to school, from as little to 10 percent to as much as 70 percent, he said.

The county has thousands of students in poverty and thousands with special needs, and it is important schools are open to assist those pupils, the superintendent said.

“We cannot serve those children to the level they are served when they are not in school,” Bearden said.

He added that reports of students being neglected, harassed or living in toxic environments have gone down since March, not because there are fewer incidents, but because the school system cannot report the cases because classrooms have been shuttered.

When asked about extracurricular activities, Bearden said the county will follow the Georgia High School Association’s direction.

Bearden said during his recent trip to Washington, D.C., in which he appeared as a panelist to discuss measures for reopening schools and spoke with some of the nation’s top health officials, it “became very clear” local data on coronavirus cases should drive decisions, including having kids in classrooms.

He said that as of Aug. 3, fewer than 1 percent of county residents had tested positive for COVID-19. He also cited figures showing Forsyth had 769 cases of coronavirus per 100,000 residents, while neighboring counties like Hall, Dawson, Fulton and Gwinnett all had well over 1,000 cases per 100,000 residents.

“Everybody has to be patient and not be afraid,” Roche said. “We can do it, we really can.”

District faces budget woes

Outside of the health implications, the pandemic has strained the school system’s budget with a loss of $23 million in state aid to start the school year. Roche said the district wanted to avoid furlough days, so it had to “dig deeply” into its fund balance.

While talks on reopening classrooms dominated the day, Roche and Bearden also outlined what lies ahead for the Forsyth Schools.  

Roche gave an update on several facilities that will open in the years to come. Donald F. Hendricks Middle School is set to open in 2021 and will become the county’s 11th middle school. East Forsyth High School and the FoCAL Center, which will include a performance hall, rehearsal rooms and other creative spaces to support the fine arts, will also open its doors next year.

The ribbon was recently cut on Poole’s Mill Elementary.

In his address, Bearden said the Forsyth County School is set to become the sixth largest district in the state and has the fastest growing number of Asian students of any system in the country.

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