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How Fulton County plans to re-open classrooms

Looney says COVID data will guide local decisions

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NORTH FULTON COUNTY, Ga. — Fulton County Schools leaders admit the playbook for managing education in a COVID-19 crisis is changing constantly. Plans made become plans discarded as data comes in.

A month ago, Fulton was planning a return to in-school instruction, with a virtual option for those not ready to return. Weeks later, the school district was forced to scrap those plans and implement district-wide remote learning as COVID+ cases soared.

School officials are now finalizing plans for a phased reopening, perhaps as early as mid-September, if the downward trend of COVID+ cases continues.

“This is complicated,” said Superintendent Mike Looney. “There’s not a book I can reference…so I’m talking to as many informed people as I can in the health, education and government [fields].”

Even that comes with challenges, Looney noted, citing the differing opinions on what is best for kids. He relies mainly on information from the Fulton County and Georgia departments of health, and he emphasized data drives the decisions.

The information today was not readily available in March when Fulton became the first district in Georgia to shutter schools because of COVID-19. It was a decision Looney said “was a quick decision” and perhaps a rash one as well.

Plans to transition instruction to a virtual platform in March were not fully in place, resources and technology issues surfaced, and learning suffered.

“We have learned from that process, and we have been planning for an improvement,” Looney said.

Chief Academics Officer Cliff Jones said remote instruction this fall will not mirror the experiences student’s had last spring.

“Be assured, universal remote learning will be a different experience, with provisions that allow more rigor and more concern for the learning environment,” Jones said.

Emphasis will be placed on teachers maintaining connection with students, daily live instruction, more time spent in the “virtual” classroom, and mitigating instances of academic dishonesty and cheating.

“The lessons [from last spring] were not missed on us,” Jones said, noting that safeguards have been put in place to ensure students are present.

During the July 23 meeting of the Fulton County Board of Education, a reopening strategy for the school year was presented. School begins Aug. 17 with teachers in schools and students learning from home.

A Phase 1 reopening could begin as early as after Labor Day if the number of COVID-19 cases continue to decline from the summer surge. Face-to-face would start with PreK–2 and for special need students who could return to schools in small numbers for meetings with their teachers. Students in grades 3-12 could arrange for one-to-one conferences with their teachers.

From there, depending on data, those options could expand through Phase 4. Full face-to-face instruction will re-open when the number of COVID cases remains at or below 100 per 100,000 population for two weeks. Students may still opt to continue virtual learning.

Currently, cities in North Fulton, including Alpharetta, Johns Creek, Milton and Roswell, are the closest to hitting the goal of 100/100,000. Cities in South Fulton are considerably further away from that benchmark. The city of Atlanta has nearly half the number of positive cases in the entire county.

The decision on whether clusters of schools, or sections of the district could be in different phases at the same time is still under discussion. Looney said reopening will be done in a measured way, based on data, that maximizes safety.

“The worst thing we can do is open and close [again], and have this rubber band effect that upends people’s lives,” Looney said.

Teachers return to work Aug. 3 for two weeks of pre-planning. Provisions have been made for those teachers unable to return for “legitimate” reasons, but Looney emphasized short-term subs will not be available.

Chief Talent Officer Ron Wade noted the anxiety of teachers returning to work is primarily based on safety.

“We have put in place safety measures, [including] they will be wearing masks, schools will follow CDC guidelines, daily health checks, [virtual staff] meetings and limiting visitors into the schools,” Wade said.

Board Member Gail Dean noted some teachers have concerns about returning to schools when they have children at home.

Looney responded it was a situation that parents of all 95,000-plus students are also dealing with in this situation.

“I hope the teachers understand it is very difficult to strike a balance, and we are trying to make this situation as fair as possible,” Looney said.

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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