NORTH FULTON—A continued decline in COVID-19 cases in Fulton County is setting up the gradual return of students back into classrooms, with all schools expected to fully open by mid-October.

Classes in the Fulton School System moved to virtual instruction on March 14 when the pandemic forced closure of the district’s 106 schools.

Last week during a work session for the Fulton School Board, Supt. Mike Looney updated changes to the four-phased reopening approved last month. The changes could bring students back to schools quicker for face-to-face instruction.

The district entered the first phase Sept. 8 allowing students in pre-K through 2nd grade and small special education classes to come to school once a week for a short period. All other students are allowed one-to-one planned visits with their teachers.

Positive-trending health data prompted Looney to recommend skipping Phase 2 and moving straight to phase 3 on Sept. 21, allowing all students to return to school for one full day a week. Students will be assigned groups so no more than 25 percent of the student population is assembled at one time.

“It was great to see the yellow buses picking up students [last week] in my neighborhood, and I look forward to the day when the buses are filled with more children,” Looney said.

Phase 4 is targeted for Oct. 5, providing students with two full days of courses, followed by the return to five days on Oct. 14. Face masks will be required for anyone on school property.

Looney emphasized the return to face-to-face is optional for students, at least for this semester, and remote learning will remain in place for those not ready to return to the classroom.

The dates for the return to face-to-face is contingent on health data. Any indication of a rise in local COVID cases could stall the move to the next phase, Looney said.

“We are assuming we are going to hit the target dates,” Looney said. “If not, that decision will be announced a week before the date for re-opening to in-person instruction.”

North Fulton board member Linda McCain questioned the burden placed on teachers who may not know how many students will be in class or on the computer.

Looney said the district is preparing a plan to submit to the public to gauge their intent, and it should know more after the first phase goes into effect.

“My suspicion is that most of the students participating in Phase 1 reopening will be participating in the other phases,” Looney said. “But there will be a process by which parents have to elect to send their children to schools, and we recognize some will opt to continue universal remote learning.”

Looney said he is not prepared to set a deadline yet for parents to make that decision. A recent survey completed by approximately 10,000 parents indicated about one in three would likely continue remote learning.

Board member Katie Reeves, who represents North Fulton, said some teachers are concerned with conducting in-person and remote classes simultaneously.

“Complications could occur when a child in the classroom asks a question and the teacher will have to repeat it so children at home will hear it,” Reeves said. “How are we going to support our teachers?”

Looney admitted it was not a perfect process, and will take time to build it to scale. In the meantime, he asked the board’s “grace” to not furlough staff until final numbers come in.

The district’s first week enrollment was approximately 90,000 students, nearly 3,000 students below projections. More than half of the shortfall is among kindergarten students, so numbers may rise when classrooms open.

Expectations are also that students in private schools may return to public school once in-person instruction resumes.

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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