Fulton County Schools pushes fall start date to Aug. 17, opens registration for optional virtual school

Fulton County Schools board members voted to delay the start of the school year by one week and discussed plans to reopen schools with faculty and staff wearing masks and taking other health and safety precautions due to the spread of COVID-19. (Community Impact Newspaper staff)
Fulton County Schools board members voted to delay the start of the school year by one week and discussed plans to reopen schools with faculty and staff wearing masks and taking other health and safety precautions due to the spread of COVID-19. (Community Impact Newspaper staff)

Fulton County Schools board members voted to delay the start of the school year by one week and discussed plans to reopen schools with faculty and staff wearing masks and taking other health and safety precautions due to the spread of COVID-19. (Community Impact Newspaper staff)

After an all-day board retreat and a special called board meeting June 29, Fulton County Schools board members and faculty presented two options for returning to school for the 2020-21 school year after closing in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Board members also voted June 29 to push the school year start date from Aug. 10 to Aug. 17.

"One-third of our schools will serve as polling places for the Aug. 11 election; and since elections bring large numbers of voters and other members of the public into our buildings, this creates an additional safety concern," FCS officials said in a news release June 29. "This delay allows our schools to re-disinfect the areas serving as a polling place while also providing teachers and staff additional days of professional development to prepare for our students' arrival."

The options being considered are face-to-face instruction and remote learning/Fulton Virtual School; however, the current plan is to open schools Aug. 17 in a face-to-face model with adjusted health and safety protocols as well as additional cleaning measures. Registration for Fulton Virtual School and individual remote learning—which require semesterlong commitments—opened June 30 and will close July 17 at 11:59 p.m. To register, visit www.fultonschools.org/enrollment.

"There's an old saying that the only constant in life is change. And that's probably never truer than it is today," Chief Operations Officer Patrick Burke said during the meeting. "Parents, students and staff will see change as they come back into their school environment and the upcoming year."

This fall, students can expect to see hand sanitizing stations installed throughout schools and all FCS employees wearing face masks, as required and provided by the district, according to Chief Academic Officer Cliff Jones. Students will not be required to wear face coverings to school; however, students are still strongly encouraged to wear face coverings—which can include face shields, masks and other types of face covers—at school and expected to wear one on the bus, he said.

Desks will face one direction when possible to allow for social distancing, and large group gatherings such as school assemblies will be limited and broadcast live to students observing from classrooms. Each school will have staggered schedules for how students will travel through the building, go through class changes, eat meals and attend group gatherings should they occur. Teachers will also implement more digital programs in classes so students and faculty both have more practice with digital programs.

Outside visitors will also be limited, and extensive cleaning measures will be taken between classes as well as before and after school. Buses will be loaded and unloaded in front-to-back and back-to front fashions, respectively, with assigned seating and extra cleaning measures. Bus drivers will be provided face shields or masks, and sanitizing stations will be installed on school buses.

Even though many aspects of school have changed, athletics and performing arts programs are underway, such as band and football, with extra hygiene and social distancing protocols implemented when possible. This will continue through the fall as well, Jones said.

"We will have challenges based on layout ... based on furniture ... based on class sizes ... and we will change our methods because of that," Jones said. "The complex re-entry into school is a leadership challenge that our leaders are ready and willing to lean into."

Parents of students in first to 12th grades have the option to choose if they want their child to attend school online or in person. Individual remote learning is available for first to eighth grades at their home schools, while the remote option for ninth to 12th grades will operate through the existing Fulton Virtual School but still be enrolled with their current school as well. Parents with children in pre-K or kindergarten who want to opt out of in-person school will not have digital options, and work will instead be distributed in paper packets.

Additionally, devices will be provided to all students in first to 12th grades who enroll in individual remote learning, and Wi-Fi hot spots will be distributed on an as-needed basis. Students needing meal service from FCS while in the remote learning model can still receive free meals through coordinating with local schools.

Not all courses, such as special and elective courses, will be offered in the virtual format. Virtual clubs will be offered, but extracurricular activities, athletics and nonvirtual clubs will not be offered.

"There is no adequate replacement for a teacher and students working together in a classroom," FCS Superintendent Mike Looney said during the meeting.

Faculty and board members stressed the difference between this spring's remote learning experience and what will occur this fall. District 2 board member Katie Reeves, who represents a large portion of Alpharetta, said there will not be any grace grading, five full days of instruction are expected and attendance will be taken daily.

"People want to know if [remote learning is] going to be like last spring. It's not," Reeves said during the meeting. "Your child will be expected to log in every day, and attendance will be taken. ... It's still full-time school, and I think people should understand that."

If data from the Georgia Department of Public Health and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate it is not safe to reopen schools for in-person instruction, Looney said a universal remote learning option will be implemented districtwide at the start of the school year.

FCS officials also have a closure matrix prepared in the event that COVID-19 cases occur within the district upon returning to in-person instruction, adjusted based on state and local public health guidance on the level of community spread. This closure decision matrix allows the district to adjust closures based on the individual school, cluster, zone or region as needed rather than implementing a blanket closure districtwide.

By Kara McIntyre
Kara started with Community Impact Newspaper as the summer intern for the south Houston office in June 2018 after graduating with a bachelor's degree in mass communication from Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. She became the reporter for north Houston's Tomball/Magnolia edition in September 2018, moving to Alpharetta in January 2020 after a promotion to be the editor of the Alpharetta/Milton edition, which is Community Impact's first market in Georgia.


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