When Craig Poore heard the plan for reopening Lumpkin County Schools for the first time, one question stood out:
“What are you providing for the teachers?”
He had several others, but Poore, like many parents, had more questions than time.
Moments later, he was being asked to vote on the plan's approval.
“We really weren’t involved in that, we heard bits and pieces here and there but the first time we heard the whole plan was actually when everybody else heard the plan,” he said. “...So it’s hard to make a suggestion or a decision when you’re seeing this for the first time and you don’t know the thought behind this.”
Poore, who serves as a member of the School Board and is the father of two children in Lumpkin County Schools, voted with the rest of the board, unanimously approving the plan. But after having the time to look over the plan, as well as those from other school systems, he is concerned about the lack of precautions included in the plan.
“Just seeing what everybody else was doing and then looking at what we’re doing and I felt, it would be a shame if we can’t go back and look at it again and see if we couldn’t find some more ways we could improve on that plan,” Poore said.
According to Poore, one way of doing that would be mandating masks, although he understands that’s easier said than done.
“You have to police that and how are you going to police that? It makes it tough,” he said. “I do feel that if you don’t mandate masks then you definitely need to make sure you’re able to do social distancing, and I really think that you should take temperature checks or some other kind of check before they go into school.”
Neither of those measures are included in the school’s reopening plan.
Fellow board member Jim McClure explained the decision to make masks “strongly encouraged” instead of mandatory, for students or teachers, citing the words of Governor Brian Kemp.
“We did not include a mask mandate as we are following the Governor's recommendation for everyone concerning masks,” he told The Nugget.
While to wear or not to wear a mask has become a politically charged and divisive topic across the nation, Poore says politics can’t interfere with providing safety for students and teachers.
“From the one board member I’ve spoken to, we don’t want anything to seem or be political there, or who's right or who's wrong. We just want everyone to be safe,” he said. “When I think about the safety of teachers and students, I throw politics aside, forget that. If I think that checking temperatures may help one or two in that building, then by golly I’m going to do it. That’s my thoughts, is that I’m going to do everything that I possibly can to do that.”
As both a member of the school board in Lumpkin County and a principal in another school system, Poore has done his research and feels he could’ve contributed positively to the plan if given an avenue.
“I’ve got ideas, I’m an educational leader myself and I’ve looked at a great many of the system’s plans, different systems and including Lumpkin County and was able to compare them and trying to find ways to help a COVID-19 plan myself,” he said.
If asked, Poore said he would’ve recommended a plan allowing for a gradual, tiered restart.
“I thought that would’ve been a better way to do it,” he said. “It would’ve been a gradual approach instead of just saying, ‘hey, we’re going back to school and we’re going to offer virtual and so everybody else we’re just going to go back and do the best we can.’”
Poore said he feels that’s a gamble.
“My worry is that we’re throwing them all in at one time, and we’re saying ‘We think this is going to work,’” he said, “but I don’t like to gamble kids or our staff or teachers and just ‘think’ this is going to work. … I want to make sure that I have everything in place so that I can say that I’ve done everything I could possibly do to keep those staff and those students safe. I think our plan is really lax.”
The current plan allowed parents to choose to send their students to traditional school or enroll them in a virtual school option for the beginning of the school year, allowing students to switch either at the nine-weeks or semester mark, depending on grade level. With registration now closed, 600 students are currently enrolled in the virtual option, representing about 15 percent of students in the system, according to Nathan Gerrells, co-leader of the virtual learning focus group.
When Superintendent Dr. Rob Brown called the names of the over 100 staff members at all levels of the Lumpkin County School System, he cited “collective wisdom” as the avenue for making the decisions involved in the plan.
He echoed that sentiment to The Nugget on Monday.
“The purpose in establishing focus groups was to involve as many people as possible in the decision making process,” he stated. “We believe the collective wisdom of people with varying backgrounds and experiences can help us make the most well-informed decisions possible.”
However, according to Poore, that didn’t include the school board members.
“The board wasn’t really involved in the plan,” he said. “The superintendent formed a committee and whatever came out of that committee was the plan and we could provide suggestions to it, but that was pretty much it. I think the committee did the best they could with the guidance they were given, but I really wish there would’ve been a little bit more thought in some of it.”
Poore would still like to see more in the plan protecting teachers. And he said those who he’s has talked to agree with him.
“They’re concerned. And I get it, especially if say for instance, you’re ready to retire, you’re a year away from retirement and you’re going back to school, it’d be scary,” he said. “I really want them to step up and do more for the teachers.”
On the other hand, McClure stated that he’s heard more positive feedback than negative.
“I have received many more positive comments about our restart plan than negative ones and want to consider every suggestion to improve our plan,” he said. “I always want everyone to be satisfied with our plan, but I realize the school system does not have unlimited funds to support every request.”
As for making changes to the reopening plan, at the moment, nothing is on the agenda. However, Brown told The Nugget that if changes are deemed necessary, they will act accordingly.
“We are and will continue to monitor data, communicate with other school systems, and follow guidance from state organizations as we prepare to restart traditional schooling,” he said. “We used feedback from our board members to make some adjustments and should additional changes be needed to better serve our students, we will make them accordingly. Our plan will remain flexible and we will adapt as circumstances change over the next couple of weeks.”
The Nugget’s attempts to reach other members of the school board went unanswered.