042419_MNS_super_finalist Mike Looney

Fulton Superintendent Mike Looney outlined the district’s back-to-school strategy at the Fulton Board of Education’s meeting July 23.Mike Looney speaks during an April 17, 2019 news conference after Fulton County Schools leaders announced he was named the superintendent finalist.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Fulton County Schools will start its 2020-21 academic year in August with in-person instruction, but a week later than originally planned.

Also, students will have the option to instead take online classes, but they must spend the entire semester taking in-person or virtual classes unless a second wave of the outbreak requires the district to close schools again.

“We’re asking any families to make a semester-long commitment for face-to-face or virtual because we have to staff accordingly,” Superintendent Mike Looney said. “Understanding there are always scenarios that pop up, we will work with families to (handle them).”

Looney made the announcement at the Fulton Board of Education’s special called meeting June 29 at the North Learning Center in Sandy Springs. While the decision to have in-person classes with an online option did not require a board vote, it did provide input on the plan, president Julia Bernath said. Also, the board voted 7-0 to approve amending the 2020-21 calendar so school could start Aug. 17 instead of Aug. 10, as Looney requested to give it more time to prepare.

As announced at the board’s June 18 meeting, the district has implemented an interim school closure matrix decision strategy that includes criteria on what it would do if one or more schools had COVID-19 cases with its students or staff. At the June 29 meeting, Looney and board members said the plan to start school with in-person instruction could change quickly if state and/or CDC guidelines change.

“If our data says it is too dangerous to open school, then we will open with scenario number 2, which is universal remote (classes) for all students,” he said, adding the plan was adjusted as late as earlier in the day, when the board had a working retreat.

Regarding the online classes option, parents can sign up their children through the district’s website (www.fultonschools.org/enrollment) from June 29 at midnight through July 17 at midnight.

The Neighbor covered the meeting remotely, and the district has a longstanding policy of not broadcasting the public comment portion of each meeting that has it.

But according to district spokesman Brian Noyes, only one of the four individuals who spoke talked about the district's back-to-school plans regarding instruction. He said a teacher suggested extra steps should be taken with the district’s schools because of a recent increase in COVID-19 cases.

Bernath said she’s heard from residents both for and against in-person instruction, adding it’s impossible to please everyone with each decision.

“But as all of our board members have said, the primary goal is for us to have the health and safety of the students in mind, and I have no doubt that Dr. Looney and all of our staff have been working toward those ends,” she said. “This is a developing time.”

District 1 board member Katha Stuart added, “Can ya’ll believe what we’ve been through the last five or six months? I’ve gotten a lot of comments recently. Those comments have been great, and you raised some questions we had not thought of.”

Patrick Burke, the district’s chief operating officer, said each school will undergo regular cleaning and will have hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment available to ensure the health and safety of students and staff. Employees will be required to wear masks, and students must wear them while on school buses but will only be strongly encouraged to wear them while on campus.

“There are a number of things we’re putting in for bus safety,” Burke said. “We’ll have face shields for bus drivers. We’ll be managing where students sit. The idea is to manage where they sit, so we can do contact tracing … (if they contract COVID-19), but it’s also how we sit our students, so we minimize how much they’re passing each other. Not in every instance, but there are other things we must consider, but loading from the back to the front, emptying from the front to the back and the reverse is true on the way home. …

“Surfaces will be wiped down between the elementary, middle and high school runs. At the end of the route in the evening, we’ll disinfect the buses in a fogging matter. … We do expect to see parents may opt out of riding a bus, and we are, and Mr. Jones will talk about it in a moment, how it will affect school management and school logistics as well. We’ll expect that to have an impact on student drop-off times.”

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