CHATSWORTH — Murray County has relatively few confirmed cases of the new coronavirus (COVID-19), and the school system opens later than most others in the state, so Superintendent Steve Loughridge is optimistic — at the moment, at least — that students can return to school buildings in traditional fashion this September.
"If we had to start school tomorrow, we'd be going back face to face with everyone there," he said on Thursday. "Unless it all blows up, we're going back Sept. 8."
Murray County had 282 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Friday afternoon and two deaths, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. Whitfield County had 1,705 confirmed cases and 15 deaths. Whitfield County had 1,629 cases per 100,000 while Murray County had 700.4 cases per 100,000.
Murray County Schools has developed three plans for reopening, based on the threat level of the coronavirus in the community. Those levels are determined by the Murray County Health Department.
Under a traditional start, staff and students would return with preventative measures in place as formulated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Georgia Department of Public Health and the Georgia Department of Education.
With a hybrid model, there would be rotating face-to-face instruction on some or all campuses with "A" and "B" days, meaning a student would attend school one day, then learn from home the next day, return to campus the following day, then do distance learning again from home the fourth day.
Finally, if distance learning is necessary, no students would be in school buildings, and all would do online education, but staff members would still report to campuses. Murray County Schools began distance learning in mid-March and continued in that manner the final two months of this past academic year.
The American Academy of Pediatrics is encouraging schools to prioritize in-person education due to the deleterious impact of school closures on students academically, emotionally and socially. As part of Gov. Brian Kemp's state of emergency order that runs through Aug. 11, the state Board of Education must provide "rules, regulations and guidance for the operation of public elementary and secondary schools for local boards of education" in line with guidance from the Georgia Department of Public Health and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Murray County Schools currently has a survey available to families regarding their thoughts on school in the time of a pandemic, as "we've got to get a handle on just how many people don't want to come to school because of (COVID-19)," Loughridge said. Currently, about 20% of students, which is roughly 1,000, have expressed interest in virtual school.
"Virtual school is different than distance learning," Loughridge said. In virtual learning, students "don't come to school; (they) operate on an entirely different platform."
The system uses Apex, an accredited online school, for virtual learning for students in grades 6-12, and Loughridge does see at least one benefit to offering, or even expanding, virtual learning in Murray County Schools.
"It could help us recover some students" who are currently home schooled, and if that happens, the system could receive additional funding, since state funding is based on the number of students, he said. "We have about 200 or so kids who do home school right now."
Earlier this week, Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the CDC, encouraged schools to open this fall with customized plans to minimize coronavirus spread while providing needed instruction and services for students.
"It's clear that the greater risk to our society is to have these schools close," Redfield said Tuesday, according to The Associated Press. "Nothing would cause me greater sadness than to see any school district or school use (CDC) guidance as a reason not to reopen."
Loughridge expressed similar sentiments on Thursday.
"We're trying to keep as much face-to-face contact with kids as possible," he said. "We know the best thing in the world is for kids to come to school."
Renda Baggett, the school board representative from District 2 and a former teacher, is concerned about students falling behind with virtual learning.
"Some parents are just not capable of helping their kids," she said. "We just need to be in school."
At least enrolling in Murray County Schools should be simpler this year than ever before, as it's "our goal" to have a new online system operational in time for the 2020-21 academic year, Loughridge said. Rather than having to visit the system's enrollment center and fill out a variety of forms, families can do that online.
Those who don't have online access or simply prefer the "old school" way will still be able to do so, however, he said. "They can still do that if that's what they want to do."