With only days to decide between sending their children to virtual school or the traditional classroom, many local parents are feeling rushed on a tough decision.
For Bethany Murphy, it took back-to-back overnight shifts working in the COVID-19 ICU at Northeast Georgia Medical Center for her to decide.
“My decision was shaped by them,” she said. “We’re filling up over there.”
Murphy decided to err on the side of caution and chose to enroll her rising third grader, who she says really thrives in a classroom setting, in virtual school. The deadline to enroll is July 23.
“I realized with only four days left to make the decision that I felt too rushed,” she said. “Our spike in COVID is evolving daily and I do not have the time to analyze this properly, so I am erring on the side of caution.”
Local mother Elaine Johnson is leaning toward traditional school, as it’s hard to imagine her son’s first day of school to be spent staring at a screen.
“We have one who will start kindergarten and want him to have a ‘school experience.’ The virtual option will be too difficult with them being required to sit at a computer for most of the day,” she said. “If we do choose to do a virtual type learning, we will end up pulling them out and strictly homeschooling.”
Lumpkin County school officials said they know that parents are facing a tough choice. Libby Bicknell, co-leader of the staff’s virtual learning focus group, said they anticipate about 10 percent of students to go with the online option.
“We’ve kind of planned for 10 percent, but if it’s more than that then we’ll deal with that,” she said. “We’re going to take whatever we have and we’re going to make it good.”
Fellow focus group leader Nathan Gerrells said the virtual classroom option will be more structured than the emergency online school students found themselves in last school year.
“In the spring, we ended up switching to a pass/fail system and just kind of giving them a pass or a fail based on how much work and effort they put forth,” he said. “In the fall, we’re going to be holding them to the same level of rigor that we do traditional, so they’ll be graded on all the assignments that they do just like they would’ve been in the classroom.”
The hours of virtual school will be from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Meanwhile, for some parents, the online option is becoming the only option.
With an 85-year-old grandma, a mom with COPD and a husband with heart issues, Cheri Tritt isn’t taking any chances. This means quitting her job so her three children can do the virtual school option.
“With this choice...I as the mom will have to quit my job, which financially will put a big hurt on my family,” Tritt said.
Amber Cannon, a high-risk mother of two, just doesn’t want to leave her kids alone.
“I don’t think I would do so well if I got the virus,” she said. “I am the only parent my kids have. Their dad passed away from cancer nine years ago, so the idea of my kids losing me is really difficult.”
Cannon can only think of the effects this decision could have on her children. And like so many, she wishes it wasn’t hers to make.
“I want what’s best for my kids obviously. Just don’t know if keeping them home longer will do more harm than good for them mentally,” she said. “I wish the school would just do all virtual for nine weeks like some.”
Local health expert, Dr. Barry Yedvobnick took a look at Lumpkin County’s school plan and said he hoped it would involve more stringent rules for masks.
“I feel that masks should be mandated for staff,” said the retired Emory University biology professor. “Why only recommend? The point is to protect people. Why make it an option? Politics should end at school entrances.”
Yedvobnick said he understands why younger children wouldn’t be expected to wear a mask all day though.
“Hard to imagine making masks work for the littlest ones. I can see them all passing their dirty masks around,” he said. “Maybe 5th grade on up? Certainly middle and high schoolers. … At least until the anti-virals and vaccines are available.”
Yedvobnick added that he knows that a lot of tough choices are being made by school officials.
“Easy for me to say,” he said. “But I sympathize with those struggling to make these decisions.”
Superintendent Dr. Rob Brown said the mask decision was based on the guidance of the state.
“Whereas we hope everyone will wear a mask, we ultimately opted to use the same verbiage that was used by Governor's Kemp's office in his communication to school superintendents on July 8,” he said. “The phrase "strongly encourage" was provided to us by Governor Kemp's staff and applies to all students and all staff. If the Governor's guidance or guidance from the GADPH or CDC mandates wearing masks, we will certainly comply.”
With the uncertainty this pandemic brings, and the abundance of questions, Brown indicated that he is searching right alongside the parents he serves.
“I hope our students, parents, staff, and community clearly understands that there is no graduate school class, no formal training, and no manual we can follow to guide our actions in times like this,” he said. “We are investing countless hours to study every possible aspect and angle of this crisis so that we can ultimately make the best decision possible for our students and staff. We have the responsibility of educating students while doing our best to keep them safe. With current circumstances, both of these tasks present unique challenges. We will continue monitoring guidance as things change in the coming weeks and we will adjust our plans accordingly.”
Last week The Nugget reached out to parents for questions on this issue and relayed them to school officials. Here’s what we found out:
What happens if a student or teacher tests positive? Will parents be notified?
Dr. Rob Brown:
“If a student or teacher is believed to have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive, they will be notified and required to quarantine for 14 days.”
“If a student or staff member tests positive he/she would need to follow the instructions given to them from his/her health care provider. We are working on guidance from the CDC - to stay home until after three days with no fever, symptoms have improved, and 10 days since symptoms first appeared. If a person has tested positive with no symptoms the CDC recommends that he/she stay home until after 10 days have passed since a positive test reading.”
What would be the process for bringing someone back who has tested positive?
“GADPH does not recommend a test-based strategy for returning to school/work. A positive test would require the person to stay out for 10 days since symptoms first appeared and a minimum of 3 days since symptoms have passed.”
How will COVID-19 related absences affect attendance?
“We are creating a new attendance code for COVID-19 which will help us track data and ensure we do not punitively impact students for COVID-related absences.”
“If a student receives a positive COVID 19 test, the parent/guardian would share the doctor's excuse with the school. If this is provided, these absences would be medically excused.”
Why are masks only ‘strongly encouraged’ instead of mandatory?
“We considered many approaches with regard to masks...Whereas we hope everyone will wear a mask, we ultimately opted to use the same verbiage that was used by Governor's Kemp's office in his communication to school superintendents on July 8. The phrase "strongly encourage" was provided to us by Governor Kemp's staff and applies to all students and all staff. If the Governor's guidance or guidance from the GADPH or CDC mandates wearing masks, we will certainly comply.”
Is there a plan in place where the system would be strictly virtual school?
“Our staff is working on several contingency plans which we hope will never be needed. If we decide locally or we are required by the state to go full virtual, we will be much better prepared than we were in the spring...As for what would get us to that point, I can only say that if we feel that we cannot provide a safe, secure traditional learning environment for our students and staff, we will consider other options.”
“The school will be in contact with the Lumpkin County Department of Health and will follow their recommendations as well as recommendations from the Georgia Department of Education and the Governor's office concerning school closures.”
How will the virtual school option differ from “crisis school” in the spring when COVID-19 first hit?
“For us in the spring, it was kind of about survival, so the teachers took their traditional learning setting and they had to all of a sudden create this virtual setting, whether they were comfortable with technology or not. So this setting, we’re asking teachers, who would like to be involved, so we’re going to have people who already understand the technology, who already are using it in their classrooms and they up front know that they’ll be doing this from the beginning. So when you can plan from day one and you know what you’re doing, then everything will be much more organized, much more planned ahead than it could be when just all of a sudden we’re just out of school and everybody was just trying to figure it out.”
“I think the big difference now between the spring and now is student accountability, too. In the spring, we ended up switching to a pass/fail system and just kind of giving them a pass or a fail based on how much work and effort they put forth. In the fall, we’re going to be holding them to the same level of rigor that we do traditional, so they’ll be graded on all the assignments that they do just like they would’ve been in the classroom.”
The hours of virtual school will be from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Will a student be able to switch between virtual school and traditional school? Dr. Rob Brown:
“We’re asking our elementary parents that choose the virtual option to commit to nine weeks of providing that avenue of instruction for their children, and we’re asking high school and middle school students to commit to a semester of learning...we know that there’s going to be some disparity and it’s not going to be just a seamless transition from virtual to traditional back to virtual, so we’re asking them for an extended commitment.”
We have created an academic review board for the virtual schools, so it’ll be school system individuals who look at those one-off situations, so if a family comes down with an illness and they need a different option and the traditional school just is not going to work for them anymore, they’ll have an avenue to try to get into the virtual school, but we don't anticipate just opening it up for everyone to have another enrollment period.
If a family comes down with COVID and they have to quarantine for 14 days, at that point, they’re going to belong to whatever setting that they’re in, so if they’re at the high school setting, they still belong to them and the teacher will just be sending home assignments like they would for any normal sick kid. It’s the long term ones that we’re going to look at putting into virtual, but if they’re just going to be out a little bit and back, we’ll keep them in whatever setting they’re in.
Can a student who enrolls in the virtual option still participate in extracurricular activities like sports?
“Kids that choose the virtual option will be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities. We feel like there’s a difference between coming to school with 1100 or 1200 other high school students and participating on a team after school which may have 12 or 15 kids, so we did not want to remove that capacity for our kids to participate.”
In the event of a short-term or long-term school closure due to COVID-19, what happens?
Teachers are expected to plan for that in their lessons and they’ll have a plan from the very beginning, if we go out, if you have to work from home, you take home this computer and they’ll have a plan in place and the teachers will have something in Google Classroom, we’re going to train up everybody so we don’t have to have that panic again.
How many students have already registered for the virtual option?
“We’re kind of anticipating about 10 percent of the student body and that’s about where we are.”
“We’ve kind of planned for 10 percent, but if it’s more than that then we’ll deal with that. We’re going to take whatever we have and we’re going to make it good.”
What else should we be considering when trying to decide whether traditional school or virtual school is best for our student(s)?
“They should look at who’s going to be home, who’s going to be bringing what back from where and consider your kid. Is your kid going to be socially O.K. with being at home? Academically O.K.? I’d say socially first, if a kid’s depressed, they’re not going to work...If you have lousy Windstream, we have Windstream and love it at our house, but some people hate it and if you can’t get your internet to work, you’re going to be very frustrated.”
“I think it’s really about the individual families because every kid is so different. You might have a fifth grader who is very independent and can work all day by themselves and learn a lot and you might have a fifth grader who needs an adult to stick with them for most of the day to keep them motivated and focused, so it just comes down to the kids individually. The younger kids especially, the main component is going to be parents. You cannot expect a kindergartener to be independent on a computer even part of the day. They really need a parent that’s going to be there with them for the youngest kids. Another thing to think about is your family as a whole, if you’ve got multiple kids who are expecting to go to virtual school, making sure you have the internet bandwidth for that too. We will do our best to try to work out schedules and things, but if you’ve got an elementary schooler and a middle schooler, they might need to be on ZOOM at the same time, just because we can’t work out the schedules differently. So they need to really consider if they’ve got the equipment to handle that.”
Are there options for parents who would prefer for their kids to do the virtual option, but can’t miss work and can’t be available to help their student during the school day hours?
“We don’t have an option right now, within the school system, for that. The virtual option we’ve created is a live option during the regular school day. I hate that families are going to have to make some tough choices like that, but with the resources that we have in the school system, we felt that it was best to devote it to that synchronous instruction, that live instruction during the day.”
I prefer the virtual option, but I worry my child needs the social exposure of traditional school. Will they be socially isolated in the virtual option?
“If they do the virtual option, they’ll be doing ZOOM classes and so they will be interacting with classmates and their teacher so that will help.”
“The kids will have access to counselors as well virtually and stuff like that so we can take care of their social emotional needs, as best as we can in a virtual setting. But then there are community things they can be on the lookout for with Park and Rec. and other options and we do encourage as much social interaction as possible. We can’t give that to them virtually, but parents need to think about that when they’re making those choices.”
If I choose to do virtual school to avoid gathering in large crowds, do I have to come to an in-person open house?
“We are going to offer a virtual orientation of some kind, we don’t know what that’s going to look like yet. We’ll be in communication with the parents about orientation options. If they need a computer at all from the school, we’ll need them to come in at some point and check those devices out, but we’re looking at other options for the orientation.”
The deadline to apply for the virtual school option is Thursday, July 23 at 5 p.m. Apply by filling out the form, which can be found at tinyurl.com/LCVirtualApp