I’m pretty sure the lingering question on every parent’s mind is “Will schools reopen in August?”

Today, this is the most frequent question I get asked when I’m out in the community. A year ago, parents would have been more concerned about summer camp opportunities or when to shop for school supplies. But COVID-19 has completely changed the conversation and made planning, even for a month from now, difficult with this ever-evolving situation.

With only a little more than a month left before school starts on Aug. 6, district and school administrators are working on a plan for a return to learning either in person, online or a combination of both. We are all hopeful that our staff and students will be able to return to our buildings in August, but it will depend on the local health department’s determination of the level of spread of COVID-19 in our community.

Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our students and staff. The Georgia Department of Education recently released Georgia’s Path to Recovery for K-12 Schools that provides considerations, recommendations and best practices for safely and successfully starting the 2020-2021 school year. Our Return to School workgroup, made up of representatives from all departments in the district along with several of our principals, is meeting weekly and reviewing recommendations from health and educational experts, to prioritize the health and safety of students and teachers as school buildings are opened and instruction delivery begins for the 2020-2021 school year.

This summer, we are hosting summer programs for high school students as well as for students in the Kid City Program and in our Little Cats Pre-K Program. All of these summer programs have given us an opportunity to implement the safety requirements recommended by the Centers for Disease Control Prevention and evaluate any concerns. Students and staff members have their temperature taken each morning before entering the building, and they are also evaluated with a health questionnaire. We are encouraging social distancing in the classrooms; have multiple hand sanitizing stations available; and custodians are regularly cleaning classrooms. We are pleased that our students and staff seem to be adapting very well to these new procedures.

If we are allowed to open our schools to students in August, I can assure you we will be using what we have learned this summer and implementing all the recommended safety precautions, including having staff wear masks, maintaining social distancing in classrooms and halls, asking students and staff to observe hand-washing and sanitizing protocols and having custodians frequently cleaning and disinfecting classrooms/facilities. We are in the process of writing plans and protocols to communicate this new normal to our staff, students and parents.

If we are not allowed to return to our schools, our team is preparing for the reality of starting school digitally. The start of a new school year will have new challenges compared to last spring’s digital learning. Our content and engagement team continues to work with our instructional coaches at both the district and school levels to prepare online curriculum, lesson plans and pacing guides to support classroom teachers.

Starting school digitally means that teachers would be introducing new standards and material for student mastery rather than just reviewing material. Teachers would have to develop formal schedules for students to meet virtually each day/week and offer specific office hours for support. Students could expect more challenging work with formative assessments and grading. Digital learning means students would miss the opportunity to meet personally or develop a strong relationship with their teacher(s). Students also would miss the connection with other students in the classroom.

The third option we are planning for is a blended model of some in-person learning and some online classes. We haven’t made a decision on a specific plan of how we would do this, but it could involve some students alternating days attending in-person and other days at home on the computer. We might also consider digital learning for some students while others could attend in person.

Our district has also created a dedicated webpage called “Reconnect DPS” (www.daltonpublicschools.com/district-resources/return-to-school) with information and updates on our plans for starting school as well as COVID-19 updates. You may also want to sign up for our weekly e-newsletter that will bring all the latest information on school re-opening to your inbox.

Finally, we know parent input is an important part of any decision we make. We will be sending out a parent survey, so if you’re a Dalton Public Schools parent be sure to check your phone and email for more information next week.

We hope to make the final announcement of how we will be returning to school by July 20. Because the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve, we have to wait until we are closer to the start date of Aug. 6 to evaluate the level of spread of the virus in our community before we can make a decision. I assure you that our staff and parents will be the first to know once a decision is made.

Tim Scott is superintendent of Dalton Public Schools.

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