The Fulton County School System will join a long and growing list of districts opting to resume school online as the cases of COVID-19 continue to rise statewide and nationally.

The district had been planning a resumption of in-person learning for the 2020-21 school year, with a later start date of Aug. 17. But rising health concerns made it impossible to safely open school to in-person instruction, said Supt. Mike Looney.

“We are in very unusual, trying times and have been doing everything possible to resume school in a safe manner,” Looney said. “But it is my intent that Fulton will begin school on schedule, but we will do so in a universal, remote learning environment.”

He noted that when school ended in May, Fulton County was reporting 640 positive COVID cases per 100,000 residents. As of mid-July, the numbers had risen to 1,069 active cases per 100,000.

“I have been clear all along that reopening schools would be predicated on the level of community spread, and unfortunately that data continues to move in the wrong direction,” Looney said.

Other districts already opting for virtual instruction this fall include City of Atlanta, Dekalb and Cobb.

Fulton had been considering three scenarios from the start — in person, all virtual, and a hybrid approach — so planning for all-virtual education has been underway. Looney acknowledged he hoped in-person learning would be possible, so the decision hemade was a difficult one.

“I fervently believe students learn best when they are in front of a teacher who is able to connect with them on a personal level,” Looney said. “That is difficult to do in a remote environment.”

But at the end of day, Looney said his first charge is to ensurestudents and staff are safe.

Looney cited concerns coming from the athletic programs, some of which had resumed limited, in-person conditioning beginning in mid-June.

Despite limiting groups to no more than 20 people at a time, Looney said the number of COVID cases among athletes and coaches continues to rise. Earlier this month, Milton football coach Adam Clack was diagnosed with COVID.

“I have a hard time visualizing if groups of 20 athletes can’t safely get together, how we can open schools in a safe manner,” Looney said.

Fulton’s expected enrollment next year is over 96,000 students, along with 14,000 employees.

Looney said the goal was to return kids to schools as soon as possible, but did not provide a time frame of when that might be. A meeting of the Fulton School Board is planned for July 23 when Looney plans to outline his recommendations.

This article was updated on July 18.

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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