Dalton Public Schools Superintendent Tim Scott "wants to return to school as normal as we possibly can" when the 2021-22 academic year begins early next month.
Though Dalton Public Schools mandated masks last year, except in certain circumstances — such as when social distance could be maintained, or while eating or drinking — that mandate was lifted in June, and that will continue to be the policy as the 2021-22 academic year opens for students Aug. 10, said Scott, who has been Dalton Public Schools' superintendent for three years and recently received a new three-year contract from the Dalton Board of Education. "Masks are welcome, but not required," including on buses.
Teachers and students who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 don't need to wear masks inside school buildings, and in-person learning, rather than virtual learning, is "a priority" for the 2021-22 school year, according to the latest guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, it's recommended anyone over the age of 2 who isn’t fully vaccinated — students, teachers and staff — continue to wear masks indoors and try to maintain three feet of distance.
Cafeterias will be used as normal, although seating charts will be kept in case COVID-19 contact tracing is required, Scott said. Last year, most student meals were served in classrooms to prevent large gatherings in cafeterias.
Dalton Public Schools performed temperature checks and asked COVID-19 screening questions last year, but those will also be discontinued for students this year, Scott said. If parents/family members wish to enter school buildings this year — say, to have lunch with their child — they will have to answer those health screening questions and have their temperature taken.
"We're moving forward with an opening as normal as we can have," said Matt Evans, chairman of the Dalton Board of Education. However, "we will continue to look for guidance from the public health community."
Dalton Public Schools may resort to more restrictive measures if there are COVID-19 outbreaks in schools or classes, Scott said.
"If we see a spike somewhere, we'll talk about social distancing (and/or) masks there."
Students deemed a close contact of someone with COVID-19 will have to quarantine if they haven't been vaccinated against COVID-19, said Mendy Woods, Dalton Public Schools' chief human resources officer.
Dalton Public Schools is planning vaccination clinics for students — at which parents of students can also be vaccinated — prior to the start of the 2021-22 academic year at Dalton High School and Park Creek School, and "we may do more during the school year if there's interest."
Dalton Public Schools provided 330 COVID-19 vaccinations to staff members, 104 to students and 57 to student family members on site this spring, Scott said. Currently, youth ages 12 and older are eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19, but parental permission is required.
In May, only two students and two staff members tested positive for COVID-19, according to Dalton Public Schools' COVID-19 data dashboard (daltonpublicschools.com/district-resources/covid-19-information/covid-19-data-dashboard). That was by far the lowest of any month during the 2020-21 academic year.
There were 613 cases of COVID-19 among students and staff during that school year, but most were traced to community spread, not "clusters" within the school system, according to Scott. Through contact tracing, it's estimated "only 58 cases out of nearly 9,000 students and employees came from inside" the school system, which is "a really good number, (as) our team did a great job of controlling what we could control."
Dalton Public Schools will continue various mitigation measures during the 2021-22 school year, including having Ecovasive treat and disinfect schools every 90 days, according to Scott. School buildings have also received air flow and ionization upgrades this year to improve ventilation.
All Dalton Public Schools buildings are "ready for students on the first day of school," said Palmer Griffin, the vice chairman of the school board. That includes Hammond Creek Middle School, a new school for students in grades six and seven, and The Dalton Academy, a new magnet high school for grades 10-12 housed in a wing of the former Dalton Middle School.