As local high schools are starting the 2020-21 academic year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they are doing so in different ways and offering alternatives for students not comfortable with returning to campus.

The fall semester follows a spring session where all schools shut down in March due to the outbreak and shifted to online classes only to finish the year.

The area’s four public schools – Buckhead’s Atlanta Classical and North Atlanta and Sandy Springs’ North Springs and Riverwood – are starting 2020-21 with online instruction only based on plans dictated by their school districts.

Atlanta Classical had planned to start the school year with in-person classes and a plan that "included dividing students into smaller cohorts, a voluntary medical testing plan, careful movement patterns, daily questionnaires and temperature checks and all of the appropriate health-safety measures like masks, hand washing, distancing, etc.," school spokeswoman Frost Osborne said.

In a survey of the school's families and employees, she added, about 75% said they preferred the in-person option, but the district's decision trumped individual school plans.

The Atlanta district will begin the school year Aug. 24, two weeks later than originally scheduled, with nine weeks of virtual classes. After that, depending on the number of COVID cases, the district could return to in-person instruction.

The Fulton County district is embarking on a similar strategy, with school starting Aug. 17 in an online-only format and the possibility of returning to face-to-face instruction Sept. 8 based on conditions. Both Fulton’s and Atlanta’s superintendents said they chose the online option to keep their students and staff safe.

The area’s private schools, which started school between Aug. 6 and 20, are taking varied approaches to the start of the school year. Some are having in-person instruction with the option for online classes, others are holding virtual classes and the rest are taking the hybrid approach by combining both.

“Pace Academy students may choose to learn in person on campus or virtually — or combine the two options, alternating between in-person and remote learning depending on their circumstances,” Pace spokeswoman Caitlin Jones said. “During the first eight days of school, we tested our COVID-19 procedures and protocols, as well as our virtual-learner capabilities, with a limited number of students on campus.

“From Aug. 12 through 14, one-third of the student body attended in person each day; from Aug. 17 through 20, half of the student body attended in person each day.”

The Weber School, which started Aug. 17, will have three weeks of online classes before starting in-person classes Sept. 8.

“Weber has a thorough plan for teaching and learning on campus for those students and teachers who are able to be on campus,” Weber spokeswoman Julie Crow said. “We are taking the next three weeks to complete the installation of an upgraded HVAC system and install learning modules to expand classroom space so that we can ensure social distancing in all learning spaces.”

The Galloway School, which began the year Aug. 20, is taking the hybrid approach that included a staggered start with pre-K through fourth-graders, fifth- through eighth-graders and freshmen through seniors each taken in-person classes during the first, second and third weeks, respectively. The students not on campus those weeks will take online classes then, and starting in the fourth week, all grades will be on campus. But students can opt for continuous online classes through Oct. 14 or later if they didn’t want to return to campus yet.

“80% of our families indicated they wanted to return to campus, a number on par with what we heard from other local independent schools,” Galloway spokeswoman Meghan Stauts said. “… The decision was made by members of our four reopening tasks forces along with our senior leadership team.”

Woodward Academy is taking a similar approach, with school starting Aug. 18 and students being split into two groups, with one taking on-campus classes while the other learns online. The plan is to have all students return to in-person instruction Aug. 31.

“By offering our families the flexibility to select an option – either in-person or remote learning – that suited their personal needs, while prioritizing the health and safety of our entire community, we are able to fulfill our mission of creating a richer learning community with exceptional academic opportunities,” Woodward spokeswoman Amy Morris said.

At Ben Franklin Academy, “We are offering our families two options: (1) modified on-campus learning, following the ‘Bubble Scenario’ with two cohorts, or (2) synchronous remote learning,” spokeswoman Angela Cassidy said.

Like Galloway, the Lovett School is using staggered starts for its back-to-school strategy of on-campus instruction. Starting with the first two days of school Aug. 17 and 18, half the student body takes in-person classes while the other half learns virtually and then switch until late August, when all students are on campus unless they opt out of face-to-face instruction.

“Because students and employees had so many new routines and systems to which they needed to adjust, our return to campus featured a phased reentry, …” Lovett spokeswoman Lindsay Wohlfrom said. “This initial reduction of density on campus and extended transition period allowed us to more effectively test and implement new procedures for both on- and off-campus learning.”

Marist School is taking a similar strategy by splitting the student body in half and having one half learning on campus while the other half takes virtual classes. But there is no timeline on when all students will return to full-time, in-person instruction. Students can also choose online-only classes, at two-week increments for as long as they want to.

“Our approach allows Marist to responsibly continue serving our families in the safest, most engaging way possible,” Marist spokeswoman Anne Stanford said. “Our work is ongoing just as the situation with the pandemic is ever-changing.”

Marist Theater Director Eric McNaughton has created a creative approach to the school's theater program due to the pandemic. For the upper school's fall production, the production itself will consist of a series of 10-minute plays. The performance will take place in October outside at various locations around campus.

"Each play will be double-cast to expand performance opportunities for our students, while simultaneously providing a Plan B should an actor have to self-quarantine," Stanford said. "Each cast will alternate performances on each performance night. The audience will be divided into cohorts of manageable size to preserve social distancing."

Wesleyan School is employing a slightly different plan.

“(Grades) K-5 are in person every day. … (Grades) 6-12 are on a hybrid rotation alternating every other day with 50% of students on campus, divided alphabetically,” spokeswoman Jennifer Copeland said.

Atlanta International School’s approach is a bit more nuanced. Grades pre-K through 2 will take classes on campus with an option for remote learning. Grade 6 is using a hybrid model, alternating a week of in-person classes with a week of remote learning, unless they want to learn 100% remotely, and Grades 3-5 and 7-12 are learning virtually in the first few weeks. The plan is to bring all grades back in staggered return in September if the rates of virus transmission continue to be flat or declining in metro Atlanta, but the option for remote learning will continue.

“The AIS task force team consulted with experts, parents and teachers on best format with the safety of our community at the forefront of all planned scenarios,” spokeswoman Alice Cappelletti said. “In secondary school we are implementing a hybrid model that limits the number of students on campus at one time by dividing them into cohorts.

“Additionally, within the different cohorts, we have also created small learning pods of students that will limit exposure to others and allow us to quarantine a very small portion of the grade if a case of the virus is detected.”

The Howard School started the year Aug. 17 with in-person classes and an option for students to take them online. Marci Mitchell, the school’s spokeswoman, said Howard’s small class sizes and large campus (17.5 acres) made opting for face-to-face instruction possible. She added none of the students have tested positive for COVID-19 so far.

Whitefield Academy started the school year Aug. 17 with a hybrid approach with in-person and online classes for high school students once per week and online instruction for those chose that option. In a similar strategy to Howard, Whitefield is utilizing its smaller class sizes and outdoor spaces for classes.

“Our goal is to provide as much on-campus engagement for students as possible, while ensuring their health and safety,” Whitefield spokeswoman Honey Brannon said. “Having a brand new lower school building, along with all of the space that we were previously using for lower school, is an incredible blessing from God during this time as it provides us additional flexibility and opportunity for on-campus engagement, even at higher risk levels.”

The Atlanta Girls’ School started 2020-21 Aug. 12 with a hybrid strategy to instruction, which the school decided on in early July, spokeswoman Shetal Shah said. None of the school’s students have tested positive for the virus so far, she added.

Holy Spirit Preparatory School, which went back to school Aug. 12, did so with in-person classes with an online option.

All schools that responded to the Neighbor’s questionnaire said they’re observing all CDC- and/or government-recommended guidelines. For the schools hosting on-campus classes, those include requiring students and staff to wear masks, checking everyone’s temperature daily, providing hand sanitizer, practicing social distancing, cleaning facilities regularly and using contact tracing for individuals who test positive for the virus.

Many are requiring students to eat lunch in their classrooms instead of in the cafeteria and are mandating students enter and exit classes in certain ways. Some schools, especially those hosting in-person instruction, cited the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations. They’ve also taken extra steps to prepare for students and staff returning to campus.

At Pace, Jones said, “We have assembled an advisory group of experienced healthcare professionals within our community that has and will continue to shape our policies and practices.”

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