School to reopen

BOE offering in-person and virtual classroom options for students

Pierce County Schools will offer a virtual option in addition to reopening for in-person classes when the new school year begins August 10.

School superintendent Dara Bennett announced the new virtual option during a comprehensive, wide-ranging discussion about reopening Pierce County Schools during a called meeting Thursday morning.

Bennett said her first month on the job had been consumed by working on a plan for reopening.

“I want to stress that this plan has been carefully thought out and has included input from all of our department directors, the Centers for Disease Control, the Georgia Department of Public Health and the Georgia Department of Education. Locally, Pierce County Health Department Nurse Manager Candi Lee has worked closely with the school system to develop the plan.

Bennett explained teachers and staff are at higher risk for the virus than the student population, since the rates of infection are higher for adults compared to those 18 and younger.

Pierce County will implement a reopening in which all schools will operate with a traditional schedule and all students and staff report to school everyday.

She pointed out, however, responses to a local survey were nearly evenly divided (53-47 percent) on whether to open for in person instruction or do virtual learning.

“We have decided to offer virtual learning for parents who don’t feel safe sending their students to school because of the virus,” Bennett said

Parents may sign their students up for virtual learning online at www.pierce.k12.ga.us and clicking on the reopening plan link in the News section. The application for virtual learning is at the bottom of the reopening plan.

Virtual learning sign-ups are underway now. The deadline to register for virtual learning is Monday, July 27. Virtual learning sign-ups will be reviewed at the end of each nine weeks. Students/parents may opt in or out at the end of the nine weeks. Students enrolled in virtual classes will not be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities or sports.

“We expect students who participate in the virtual learning to devote as much time to classes as they would during  a normal school day,” said Bennett.

In-person learning is part of three phase guidelines developed by the State Department of Education.

The in-person phase would be for communities with no/low spread of the virus.

The superintendent said parents would be asked to help screen students before they reach campus.

“We are going to ask parents to screen their children before sending them to school,” she said.

Bennett pointed out social distancing measures will be implemented and the wearing of masks will be encouraged  in all schools under the first phase.

“We are going to have to have a ‘mask culture’ in our schools,” Bennett said, noting that wearing facial coverings is one of the only known ways to fight the spread of the virus.

For elementary level grades, faculty will wear see through masks so that students can see the person’s face. Signage will be posted on how to limit the spread of the virus, and digital (no touch) temperature monitoring will be used to determine if students and staff are fevered, potentially infected and need to go home. Anyone with a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher should not come to school.

Contact among students will be limited as much as possible.

Disinfectants and extra cleaning will used during the day at all campuses. Classrooms, cafeterias and high-traffic areas will be sanitized as much as possible.

Bennett also pointed out visitors admitted to campus will be limited. There will be no field trips and athletic events will follow guidelines set by the Georgia High School Association. Hand washing will be encouraged and hand sanitizer will be available for both phases.

More lunches will be added at the middle school and high school and more table space will be expanded at the high school for social distancing. At the elementary grades, classes will be staggered in the cafeteria and classrooms on alternating days.

Assemblies and large gatherings during the school day are on hold until further notice.

Transportation to and from school will feature additional measures with the buses sanitized between routes. Hand sanitizer will be available and wearing of masks will be encouraged.

Assigned seats with students from the same household sitting together will be enforced on the bus.

Visitors will be limited at every campus and all volunteer programs are on hold. Visitors will also be asked to wear masks and no one with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher will be admitted.

Bennett explained the presence of the virus in the community will determine if the school system remains in the first phase or has to change to one of the other two phases.

If there is minimal to moderate spread in the community a second phase will be implemented. In this phase, called the hybrid model, students will attend school in a staggered schedule.

Bennett also pointed out social distancing measures and all other guidelines in the first phase will be in place in all schools under the hybrid phase.

The student populations will be divided in half with those with A-K last names attending two days per week and students with L-Z last names attending a different two days. The remaining school day will be used to deep clean and sanitize all school buildings.

In the third phase, which would be substantial spread in the community, in-person classes will cease entirely as they did in March. All students and teachers would then go to a virtual/digital classroom model  or lesson packets will be sent home for at-home lessons. Schools would be closed until the number of cases declines.

“We are going to do the best we can do to get school back underway this year,” said Bennett.

Board members asked questions about the virtual learning and additional sanitation plans, but agreed with the plan put in place.

“I think this is the best plan we can have,” said Board Chairperson Linda Zechmann.