Lumpkin County Schools announced that the system will start the second half of the school year virtually, with no students returning to in-person school for the first two weeks of the semester.
“Due to the increase in positive cases across our community, we have made the difficult decision to delay in-person, face-to-face schooling until Tuesday, January 19, 2021,” Lumpkin County Superintendent Dr. Rob Brown said via recorded announcement in a call to parents of LCSS students on Monday afternoon.
Students were originally scheduled to return to the classroom on Tuesday, Jan. 5, however they are now out of school for an extra two days. The system plans to return via virtual learning on Thursday, Jan. 7.
Between the recent effects COVID-19 has had on both the community and the school system, Brown said the decision is necessary to help mitigate the spread of the virus in Lumpkin County.
“This decision was primarily based on current spread rates within our community and us having numerous employees who are unable to return to work,” Brown told The Nugget.
During Winter Break a reported 31 employees tested positive for the virus.
LCSS Director of Public Relations Jason Lemley said that after discussing the situation with other neighboring school districts, delaying the start of in-person school seemed like the best choice for the community.
“More importantly, I think one of the big decisions that kind of went into this is Northeast Georgia Medical being at capacity and anything we can do to try and get through this current spike and this peak and help out the healthcare community,” Lemley said. “We’re just trying to do our part.”
COVID-19 cases have continued to increase at the highest rate since the pandemic began in Lumpkin County. As of Monday the count stood at 1,946 positive cases, an uptick of 169 cases from last week’s total of 1,777, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Sadly the death toll increased with it as one Lumpkin County resident, a woman over the age of 90 died as a result of the disease. She was not listed as having preexisting conditions, according to reports.
An official count shows that 22 local residents have died from the disease since the beginning of the health crisis. COVID related deaths often take a few days to register in the GDPH daily status report. Hospitalizations also made a jump from 166 cases to 180.
“If you look at the map of Georgia right now and the current cases, northeast Georgia is kind of an epicenter and that’s kind of scary,” Lemley said. “So we’re just hoping that by delaying the opening of face-to-face instruction for another two weeks, that hopefully everyone’s travel has stopped and family gatherings from Christmas have stopped and we can get through the next couple of weeks and we’ll be in a better situation to come back after Martin Luther King Day.”
MAKING THE CALL
According to Lemley, this decision has been in the works for a while as the school monitored the data over the break before officially making the call on Monday.
“Dr. Brown consults with the Pioneer RESA schools in our region and they talk often,” Lemley said. “They had a call at the end of last week where they were all kind of talking about the current state of affairs and the spike in cases over the holidays…It was a difficult decision to make, the administrators met this morning via ZOOM to talk about it. The Board of Education of course has been in communication with Dr. Brown talking about what best we can do right now.”
Lemley also said that while they’ve been monitoring the data, it’s tough to get an accurate read on how many students have been exposed, as not all cases were reported to the school while school was on break.
“We’ve been looking at the data over the last couple of weeks,” he said. “Because students aren’t in school, we’re not getting full reports from families like we normally would if their students have tested positive or not, so our numbers for students are, sometimes we just don’t get those reports over the holidays like we would if we were in school so we’re not sure how accurate our numbers are with students. We have been notified of faculty members that have been positive or test positive over the break and those numbers were definitely up from in the past.”
Lumpkin is just one of several surrounding counties that made the decision to start back to school virtually instead of in person. Lemley said the idea is that if the region works to limit the spread, the burden will be taken off the healthcare sector.
“Looking at all that data and talking to the other Pioneer RESA districts, there’s quite a few school systems in our region, Gainesville City, Hall County, Banks County, Hart County, Rabun County,” he said. “All of those are in Pioneer RESA who are deciding to do the same thing, just close for a couple weeks, go the virtual route and see if we are in better shape as far as COVID cases are concerned and our hospitals’ capacities in our area are in better shape in the next couple of weeks so if there are people who need hospital care, our hospitals are in better shape to take care of those patients.”
As for school sports, the plan is to continue with those events as scheduled.
“Our extracurricular activities, we’re just going by Georgia High School Association’s decisions. Right now, none of that stuff is being suspended,” Lemley said. “As long as our athletes are healthy and non-symptomatic, they don’t have any symptoms and we’re still following all of our guidelines as far as checking temperatures, social distancing as much as possible. One thing that will change is we will be requiring masks so for our people that are coming in to watch the games, we will be asking them to wear a mask as they enter the building.”
While this is the first time that the entire district has switched to virtual school since last spring when the virus shut down all in-person instruction state-wide for the remainder of the school year, Lemley said things will be much different this go around.
“It is not going to be like last year’s virtual option,” he said. “We are giving our teachers . . . three planning days to get best prepared for teaching. And it’s not just going to be log in whenever or do your assignments whenever. It’s going to be specific to your class time. ...We’re going to follow the same schedule, hoping to best transition back to face-to-face for those students. Our virtual students, who have chosen to continue to be virtual students for this semester, they’re still assigned to those same teachers that they had and they’re still doing their same assignments as they have for the entire school year, so none of that is changing.”
Lemley expects this virtual shutdown to run much more smoothly than last year’s emergency shutdown, thanks to the preparedness of the district’s teachers.
“We’re pretty confident that this is the best option for us right now and for our community,” he said.
However, Lemley said that the decision was made more tough knowing that not having in-person school could put a strain on some families to find child care during the school day. He hopes that everyone will be willing to work together to combat and mitigate the spread of the virus.
“We just want people to know that this was a hard decision to make because we do realize that parents are having to go back to work after the holidays now and it’s difficult,” he said. “It’s not an easy decision at all that we had to make to do this, but we do think we’re doing what’s best for our community, our students, our teachers, our parents and everybody at this time. And if we all work together and do our part to continue to stay within our bubbles and to not gather outside of our bubbles as much as possible, then maybe we can get a better hold on this and we’re able to come back face-to-face in a couple weeks.”
Brown does not foresee a long term shutdown like last spring, but says regardless of what’s ahead, the school system is much better prepared this time around.
“I cannot imagine the need for a wide-spread shut down such as we experienced last year, but I can assure you that we are much better prepared than we were last year should that need arise,” Brown told The Nugget.
While LCSS will be monitoring the positive case count and reevaluate the situation leading up to the return, the current plan is to return to school on Jan. 19.
“It is my hope that we will see a decline in the positive number of cases within our community and that we can safely return to face-to-face school after this two-week period,” Brown said in the recording.