COVID-19 wave could impact the opening of the new school year in Murray County

File/Daily Citizen-News

Don Milen wears a mask while teaching sixth-graders at Woodlawn Elementary School in September 2020. Murray County Schools officials have yet to finalize back-to-school policies and procedures for the coming school year regarding COVID-19, because the situation is "evolving so rapidly," Superintendent Steve Loughridge said Thursday. 

CHATSWORTH — With approximately a month remaining until the start of the 2021-22 school year, Murray County Schools officials are taking a wait-and-see approach to opening plans in terms of policies and procedures related to COVID-19.

"We wanted to go back like normal, pre-COVID-19, but in light of the recent outbreak" powered by the highly transmissible delta variant, "we're going to revisit (our plans) as we get closer to the start of the year," said Superintendent Steve Loughridge. "It's evolving so rapidly."

The delta variant accounts for 78% of new COVID-19 cases in Georgia, and it spreads “more than twice as easily” from person to person as the original strain, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The highest increases in cases, hospitalizations and deaths are among the unvaccinated.

Murray County Schools is again offering a completely virtual option for students this school year, as the system did last year, but thus far there's been "very little interest," as most families appear eager for in-person education, Loughridge said. However, that, too, could change, depending on COVID-19 case numbers locally.

As of Friday afternoon, Murray County had 4,465 confirmed cases of COVID-19, more than all but 40 of Georgia's 159 counties, with 280 hospitalizations attributed to COVID-19, 84 confirmed deaths and eight probable deaths, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. Murray County's rate of 11,090 confirmed cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents was 14th-highest among the state's counties.

Through the first four of five weeks of summer school, Murray County Schools had tallied only a handful of cases of COVID-19 among students, Loughridge said.

"We've not had more than four or five total."

Summer school began July 12 and ends Thursday, offered four days a week from 8 a.m. to noon. Meals and transportation are provided by the school system.

Murray County Schools offered summer school to nearly 1,900 students in an effort to catch students up on learning lost during the pandemic, and "we've had over 90% attendance," Loughridge said. "We'll see the results at the end" with final assessments of students, but "it's gone really well."

Board policy change

Students in Murray County Schools follow certain "pathways" to graduation, meaning select elementary schools feed into select middle schools, which feed into either Murray County High School or North Murray High School, and students are set on those pathways based on where their families live. However, families sometimes move within the county, placing them in another pathway geographically, which can be difficult on students who have to leave behind friends.

The Murray County Board of Education voted 4-2 Thursday to address that issue. Kelli Reed, the at-large member of the board, was not there.

With the policy change, students who have been in a feeder pathway for three or more consecutive years can remain on that pathway if they choose, even if they move to another area of the county, said Mike Tuck, the school system's director of human resources. The school system has fielded "repeated" appeals from students over the years who wish to remain in their pathway despite moving.

"I think it'll affect mostly middle and high school" students, said board member Conrad Puryear, who voted for the measure along with Aaron Phillips, Sparky Roberts and board chairman Greg Shoemaker. "I think three years is a good number."

"I think you'll have a lot of (students) not going in their" geographic area, said board member Renda Baggett, who was joined by Heath Jones in voting against the policy change. "We have a lot of movement in this county."

Financials

Murray County Schools has spent or allotted its $1.6 million from the initial federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act, but still has $2.1 million remaining from its $6 million allotment from the second CARES Act, said Kathy Smith, the school system's director of finance. "We've rolled" that $2.1 million into fiscal year 2022, and "about $1 million of it is already in open purchase orders for July."

The school system has deployed CARES funds in several ways, from technology updates and improvements to replacing heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) controllers at school buildings, Smith said. "We're not into" the $13 million from the federal American Rescue Plan of 2021, all of which can be carried until fiscal year 2023, yet, "but we will."

Murray County Schools' nutrition department concluded the 2021 fiscal year with a $300,000 surplus in its budget, said Amanda Ridley, director of school nutrition. That surplus will be used to purchase "lots of (needed) equipment."

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