Bryan County Schools Superintendent Dr. Paul Brooksher announced in a mass email Friday the plan for the start of the 2020-21 school year as the COVID-19 pandemic continues unabated.
That plan, which backs up the start of school from Aug. 5 until Aug. 17 and gives parents the option of whether to have their children attend classes at school or take classes online, was unrolled for school board members first during an approximately 3-hour workshop July 16 at the Bryan County Board of Education office in Black Creek.
And it was clear providing choice was no easy choice.
“There is no big win in this situation,” Brooksher told the board.
“We are not going to make everyone happy. We are not going to meet every single person’s expectation. But we will get 100 percent for our effort.” He went on to note that all the system’s teachers had already set up schedules for holding what educators are terming “face to face” classes. Those plans will have to be changed, though how much depends on how many parents opt for e-learning, which is being led by Assistant Superintendent Dr. Trey Roberts and former Richmond Hill High School principal Debi McNeal, who is now the system’s curriculum, instruction and assessment director. For example, If 1,000 of the district’s projected 10,000 students opt for e-learning, which will be available for all grades but Pre-K, administrators then must find out which school they come from and assign teachers from those schools to handle them, and it’s unlikely the numbers will add up to an equal number from each school. The e-learning curriculum will be taught by teachers from classrooms at the various schools, rather than having teachers teach from home as they did when schools were shuttered in March by Gov. Brian Kemp. Brooksher told board members Kemp could again decide to close schools if COVID-19 numbers continue to climb.
He also warned members a local outbreak of COVID-19 could force a school to shut down. “If 20 percent of teachers in Lanier are out, that school would have to close, we couldn’t continue to have classes there,” he said. “It’s going to be hard to get substitute teachers in this environment.” That’s why the wearing of masks and practicing social distancing on buses and at school will be required, and Brooksher said parents who opt to send their students to class will be asked to sign a pledge in which they promise to take their child’s temperature each day before school, as well as ensure their child follows various Centers For Disease Control and Georgia Department of Public Health guidelines. Those include various mandatory quarantines for students and staff members who test positive or show symptoms, or are asymptomatic but come in contact with people who’ve tested positive for COVID-19, he said. Exceptions will be made for students or employees who have documented medical reasons they can’t wear masks, the superintendent said.
As for parents who “are uncomfortable with the wearing of masks, we’ll suggest they consider enrolling in e-learning,” Brooksher said, noting the state’s school reopening guidelines and statements by the governor give local school boards the authority to require the wearing of masks.
“Think of it as part of the dress code,” he said. “We require pants, we require shirts, we require shoes, we can require masks.”
They will be provided to students who meet free and reduced lunch guidelines and made available to those who forget their masks. Each bus will carry a box of the masks enroute every day.
Students will be able to choose the style of mask they wear, so long as it isn’t “disruptive,” and administrators hope to make it “cool” to wear them, a pitch that will likely work better on younger students.
But some parents won’t have a choice of whether to enroll their children in e-learning. Students who participate in extracurricular athletics, for example, will have to attend school in order to be eligible to compete, Brooksher said.
And the health of students is only part of the equation, the superintendent noted, telling board members parents have come out overwhelmingly in support of reopening schools due to the impact it’s having on their children, but “they haven’t referenced our staff. We have 1,300 staff members and we have to think about our staff’ safety as well.”
The system, which is having to cut $6 million in spending from its 2020-2021 budget, is budgeting for an 11-person COVID-19 cleaning team. That team will go in at night to a school where a student tests positive for the coronavirus and “deep clean” every place the student was in at the school, Brooksher said.
Still, it was clear at the workshop that the plan behind the reopening of Bryan County Schools was still a work in progress.
“There are a lot more questions than answers right now,” Brooksher said. “Some of these we will work through as they occur, they’re going to be so unique. But we have spent countless hours working on this plan … and we are offering a face-to-face option, and we’re doing it the safest way we can.”
He also cautioned board members to realize things could change in a hurry, but, unlike neighboring districts which are not going entirely to online classes this fall, the system is trying to meet its parents needs.
“It could change before we even have our first day of school, even in person or at home,” he said. “But if you look at the folks that really have common sense and think rationally, they’ll be be proud of Bryan."