NORTH FULTON — A milestone in the slow rebound from COVID-19 was the reopening of schools in Fulton County last week and the cautious return of students and staff.
On Oct. 14, almost seven months to the day the pandemic shuttered school buildings, teachers and students were again in the same classrooms — albeit socially distanced and wearing face masks under the new rules of normal.
Approximately 60 percent of the district’s 90,600 students chose to return to schools. The rest chose to continue with classes online.
Among North Fulton’s 48 schools, the return rate was slightly higher with about 65 percent of students opting for face-to-face instruction.
Decisions varied across the region, from nearly every child back in class at Vickery Mill Elementary in Roswell, to fewer than 35 percent returning in person at Creekview Elementary in Alpharetta.
Zone 5, which includes schools in the Centennial and Roswell high school cluster, saw the highest rate of return with 76 percent of students opting for in-person instruction. Zone 6, which includes Chattahoochee, Johns Creek and Northview high schools, had the lowest return rate, with just over half of students back in classrooms.
School Superintendent Mike Looney said the district has been planning since last spring on how to safely reopen schools as the pandemic persists. A phased re-opening tied to health data served as the Fulton School System blueprint.
“I’m really pleased and thankful that we stayed true to the commitment [I made] to the community of letting the data drive the decision-making process,” Looney said.
Schools began phase one after Labor Day, beginning with small groups of students in school for one day a week and gradually adding more students for longer periods.
Looney said the decision to move forward with the full reopening on Oct. 14 was made at nearly the last minute to ensure health data supported the decision. The target was for the county to have fewer than 100 COVID cases per 100,000 residents.
“We had two back-to-back reports [that gave us] the green light for face-to-face instruction,” Looney said. “I’m thankful we stayed true to [our] commitment of letting the data drive the decision-making process.”
Despite health data that indicates an improving situation, thousands of parents opted to keep their kids home. Many took to social media to challenge the health data and the decision to reopen.
Chief Academic Officer Cliff Jones said the district supports any decision parents make for their children.
“We will honor and continue to support [families who], for whatever reason, do not want to return to face-to-face instruction,” Jones said.
He outlined the 12-step process for virtual learning designed to improve instruction and address concerns parents and teachers have expressed.
Schools are also working to support teachers as they instruct students in person and remotely. Many teachers have said the hybrid approach for in-class and virtual students is not sustainable.
School can choose from three ways to organize classes: teachers either have all remote or all face-to-face; teachers have a mix of students; and/or teachers have some classes in person and other classes with remote learners.
Because of the complexity in scheduling with the three options, parents are being asked to not change their decision from face-to-face or remote learning until next semester.
A representative for Fulton Schools said Looney will make a decision by Thanksgiving on plans for instruction next semester.