Summer vacation is just getting started. But questions about next school year aren’t taking a break.
In fact the speculation heated up last week when the Centers for Disease Control released suggested guidelines for reopening schools that seemed to leave Lumpkin County Board of Education members shaking their heads.
“My initial thoughts were that the CDC doesn't understand how public schools work,” board member Lynn Sylvester told The Nugget. “The CDC's initial guidelines were unrealistic.”
The guidelines cover several issues including the usage of cloth face coverings by students, teachers and administrators, sanitization and social distancing, among many others. Maintaining social distancing compliant with the guidelines may be the most challenging, according to the board members.
“If you have a class of more than five or six it would be impossible to space them six feet apart,” board member Mera Turner stated. “The number of students in a bus would be very hard to space with [the] current number of students.”
In 2019, the average class size across the three elementary schools in Lumpkin County was 23 students. Lumpkin County High School’s average class size even higher at 29 students, according to officials.
Fellow board member Craig Poore points out that it would be difficult to lower class sizes with the resources in place, even before the mandated budget cuts.
“The guidelines, as of today, will be tough and are going to need resources that many schools will not have available by fall,” Poore stated. “With the recommendation of smaller class sizes from the CDC and the state’s 14percent cut to the school systems budget it will mean that systems will need to be very conservative and think outside of the brick and mortar school setting to meet them.”
Superintendent Dr. Rob Brown agreed.
“The logistics of managing social distancing in a traditional school setting is challenging enough,” Brown stated. “When you add the anticipated budgetary challenges and a reduction in staff, many of the guidelines become impossible.”
BRACING FOR CUTBACKS
Brown told The Nugget just how much the cuts could affect the school system as they attempt to decide what to cut.
“We are anticipating a 14% ($3.1 million) cut to our state revenues which account for 55% of our total budget,” Brown stated. “We are already operating on an extremely tight budget, so identifying ways to cut will be extremely difficult. All of our money is invested in people, programs, and services which are vital for student success, so any budget cut is difficult.”
Another source of funding for the school system, property tax money, is also being complicated by the pandemic, according to Poore.
“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, parents and community members have stated that they are having a hard time at home and many are found in the difficult place of trying to feed their kids, keep their home, and find work because of layoffs,” he said. “With the loss of jobs, and increased strain on local families' incomes, systems won't be able to look at property taxes as a viable way to offset the state's 14% cut.”
Poore says that several parents, teachers and members of the community have reached out to him with questions.
“Parents have real good questions: Are we going in the fall? Are we going to be able to keep the school clean? Are the teachers going to be safe? Will this cost my family more on taxes? These are all concerns from the public that I have heard,” he said. “They worry about their children, the teachers, and what this all means for their families' future here in Lumpkin County.”
Yet for now, there aren’t many answers as the COVID-19 landscape is ever-changing.
“...we are getting new information each week and whatever is said today, may change in the coming weeks.”
Board member Jim McClure suggested the picture could become more clear later in the month.
“State budget cuts along with safety protocols will likely dictate a lot of decisions,” McClure stated. “We will not have final State funding levels until after they resume the current legislative session [on] June 11. We are currently discussing options.”
Brown says one of those options would be to continue a form of virtual learning.
“As a school system, we hope to have options for all students,” he said. “We are developing a virtual school option which will give students who do not feel comfortable going back to ‘normal school’ an option to continue being served in our school system.”
Turner fears a scenario where virtual learning is still the only option.
“If these requirements stay in place we may have to continue with virtual school for a while longer,” she said. “I pray that a compromise can be reached so students can return to the classroom. Teachers are needed in the classroom to explain material [a] student is having trouble with. Teachers are cheerleaders for students. Students would have a safe place to work and be welcomed. Students would have two meals a day which is all some students may have to eat every day due to a variety of reasons.”
While the board awaits what the final regulations from the Department of Education and CDC are Poore assures that any requirement to keep the students and teachers safe will be met.
“I along with all parents want to make sure our children and teachers are safe,” he said. “If these guidelines are what it takes to keep everyone safe then we will have to find a way to meet them.”
Sylvester agrees, asking parents to “have confidence that we are taking all necessary safety precautions and will follow any guidelines put out by the DOE and CDC.”
Brown said he feels confident that with all summer to plan, that the school system will be able to ensure a safe return to school in the fall.
“As a school system, our delivery model was totally turned upside down with very little warning,” he said. “We changed the way we have served students for many years with barely a 48 hour notice. We had no formal training, no direction, and no way to predict how our lives would be impacted so quickly. Students, teachers, and parents were forced to make the best out of a bad situation....We showed that when we work together, we can accomplish great things. We will plan the worst-case scenarios, but continue to hope for the best.”