FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — The Forsyth County School System will be the state’s largest district offering students a choice of in-person or virtual learning next month, bucking the all-virtual trend set by most area school systems.

Forsyth students will, however, receive an additional five days of summer vacation, with the decision to delay by one week the opening of schools. The 2020-21 school year was set to open on Aug. 6. Classes have now been set to begin Aug. 13. The five school days will be made up throughout the year.

The start date for teachers remains July 29. The delay in student return will provide five additional days for pre-planning, giving teachers a total of 11 days to prepare for the return of students.

During the July 21 meeting of the Forsyth County School Board, Superintendent Jeff Bearden said the additional planning time is critical for the district to succeed.

“[The additional days] are needed so we can be fully prepared to meet the needs of our virtual students and face to face students,” Bearden said. “I’ve heard from principals and teachers that this is so different than anything we’ve ever done before.”

He acknowledged the high level of debate over the district’s decision on how to start the school year, citing the thousands of emails that have flowed in over the past few weeks.

“It’s virtually impossible to respond to every one of them, but we read them all,” Bearden said. “We listen to our community, and we know there are various opinions on how we should do things.”

He emphasized every recommendation he has made is based completely on the situation in Forsyth County, and what the data says. Bearden said he had the opportunity to speak with national public health leaders in a summit this month, which helped him develop guidelines for the district.

“It was made very clear to me that local school systems should be opening based on their local data,” Bearden said. “Guidelines should be adopted that make the most sense for the community.”

Bearden added he is in daily communication with the Georgia Department of Public Health and the Georgia Emergency Management Agency as he monitors the COVID-19 crisis in the county.

As of July 23, Forsyth County has reported 1,499 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 16 deaths, and 159 hospitalizations, according to the GDPH. The population of the county is 252,660, meaning fewer than 0.6% of Forsyth County’s residents have had a confirmed case of COVID-19.

An ongoing challenge for the district as it develops protocols for its 51,000 expected students, is getting a firm number of who is learning virtually and who will return to schools. About one in three elementary school students have already opted for remote instruction; the numbers for grades 6-12 will not be known until early August.

“We might have 20 to 25 percent of our students learning virtually from home,” Bearden said.

He added the additional pre-planning time will also allow the schools to apply the reopening guidelines in a way that works best for that school.

The revised calendar is available on the district’s website, www.forsyth.k12.ga.

Candy Waylock is an award winning education reporter who has covered all things education for Appen Media over the past 20 years. She is an Alpharetta resident.

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