042419_MNS_super_finalist Mike Looney

Mike Looney speaks during an April 17, 2019 news conference after Fulton County Schools leaders announced he was named the superintendent finalist.

The Fulton County Schools district is going back to school with virtual classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but it hopes to safely and gradually return to in-person classes as soon as possible, its superintendent said.

As it did in March, when Fulton was the first district to close schools because of the outbreak and some staff members testing positive for the virus, it’s getting ahead of the game by publishing a reopening matrix in the same way it released a closing matrix in the spring, Mike Looney said.

“We have learned so much from that process,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a new normal because I don’t know what a new normal means, but I don’t think we can go back to the previous normal. … We want to open schools with face-to-face instruction. … So do our teachers and parents as well. But it’s complicated right now.”

Looney outlined the district’s back-to-school strategy at the Fulton Board of Education’s meeting July 23 at the South Learning Center in Union City. At the board’s June 29 special called meeting, the district announced it would start the 2020-21 academic year with in-person instruction and an option for students to take virtual classes, and the board approved Looney’s plan to begin the school year Aug. 17, a week later than originally planned.

But in a July 16 brief special announcement, Looney said the district would be changing to online-only classes (universal remote learning) due to the recent rise in COVID-19 cases, adding he would provide more details at the July 23 meeting.

According to the Georgia Department of Public Health’s website, Fulton County had 14,673 confirmed cases and 356 deaths July 23, up from 10,166 and 322 July 1, and earlier in the week it overtook Gwinnett as the county with the most cases in the state.

“There’s not a book I can read or a chapter I can turn to, but I have been talking to as many people as possible about what to do next, including other school districts and colleges,” Looney said. “There are so many options.

“When I made the switch from face-to-face learning to virtual instruction, the data shows we were on the wrong side of it. We are perhaps two weeks or so behind Florida and Texas. We all know, based on what the media is reporting, what is happening in those other Southern states.”

Looney has taken to Twitter to encourage the public to take precautions to help reduce the virus’ spread and announce the district’s back-to-school plans. His July 16 tweet about virtual classes brought tweets of mixed reviews from individuals, including parents, who both praised and criticized the plan.

At the July 23 meeting, Looney and all seven board members said they have been inundated with emails from parents and others with concerns about the online instruction plan and asked for patience in responding to them.

“We’re preparing for an economic tsunami for Fulton County, and it’s an economic tsunami for our community and our individual families,” District 2 board member Katie Reeves said. “There are people who can’t go to work because we’re not in school (and have children at home).

“I’m deeply aware of what’s going on. The decisions made by Dr. Looney have not been made lightly. There’s no easy answer. This is a really, really rough situation.”

The district does not broadcast the public comment portion of each meeting due to a longstanding policy. But when asked by the Neighbor, which covered the meeting remotely, how many public speakers there were and what they talked about, district spokesman Brian Noyes said five parents commented, with three in favor of universal remote learning and two requesting in-person classes.

Under the back-to-school plan, the district will return to in-person classes, in a five-phase strategy, once it’s safe to do so, with Looney saying Phase I could start as early as Sept. 8. Also, starting Aug. 17, principals, teachers and staff will return to their schools and teach classes remotely from there unless they had a legitimate reason to teach from home.

In the first phase, all students would spend at least 90 minutes a week meeting with their teachers in school. Phases II through IV would increase face-to-face time to half a day, one day and two days per week, with the final, face-to-face phase being five days a week. Parents can opt to keep their children in virtual classes if they want to.

In his July 17 announcement, Looney said he was concerned about the number of coaches and student athletes that tested positive for the virus during summer workouts, despite limiting drills to 20 student athletes or less. Noyes said three coaches and three student athletes tested positive, which impacted practices at 13 of the district’s 16 high schools.

Three days later, the Georgia High School Association’s board voted to approve delaying the prep football season by two weeks, but other fall sports are proceeding as scheduled.

At the July 23 meeting, Cliff Jones, Fulton’s chief academic officer, said the district suspended all preseason workouts July 22 for the remainder of the week due to the pandemic. He also said the district’s non-region softball games and volleyball matches will be cancelled and possibly rescheduled, and their region contests could be rescheduled.

To view the district’s reopening matrix document, visit bit.ly/2OOXPzg.

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