During a special-called Cobb school board meeting Thursday, the seven board members unanimously approved Superintendent Chris Ragsdale’s recommendation to push back the first day of school for students from Aug. 3 to Aug. 17.
The delay comes as COVID-19 cases rise across Georgia. The state registered nearly 3,500 new cases of the viral disease Thursday, setting a new daily record for infections.
The vote only impacts students and does not alter the rest of the academic calendar. Teachers will still report to pre-planning as scheduled on July 26. All staff will report on their regularly scheduled date.
“This additional two weeks with no students will give us that additional window of time to make sure that we have everything in place to provide ample teaching and learning for virtual students, as well as those students that are choosing to come face to face,” Ragsdale said.
Board members warmly received Ragsdale’s recommendation to delay the school year. Dr. Jaha Howard told the board he appreciated the recommendation.
“I really believe that pushing back two weeks will give our educators some good time, just good runway, to really figure out the new flow, new system, and make sure that we’re all on the same page before students show up.”
The superintendent said the district will use the extra two weeks without students to prepare virtual curriculum, train staff and assign teachers to either virtual or in-person instruction.
“As we get ready for this virtual option that we’ve got, we’re going to have to do specific training for individual groups of teachers, we’re going to have to do specific training for individual groups of administrators and other employees as well,” Ragsdale said. “That extra two weeks of window without having students in schools is going to give us a tremendous amount of time and opportunity for remote and digital lessons to be created, and also for us to identify the teachers that will be virtual teachers.”
Thursday’s decision comes only a week after the school district released plans to reopen schools. Last week, the district presented a reopening plan with options for in-person instruction and remote learning. The district has postponed student registration for virtual or in-person learning, but Ragsdale said it will notify students and families when the registration portal will reopen.
“More than likely it’s going to be an open date without a closed date because we want to leave it open as long as possible,” Ragsdale said of the registration portal. “We want to continue to provide updated information as we receive it from the state, both the (Department of Education) and state and local health officials.”
The district will post all COVID-19-related updates on its website, Ragsdale said. Board member David Banks said families should look online or direct questions to their children’s schools.
“The public needs to understand that things are in flux,” Banks said. “To me, the best place to get information is to go to your school’s website and talk to your principal and assistant principals to find out what the latest is.”
Following this decision, students will report to school on Aug. 17, two weeks later than originally scheduled. The rest of the academic calendar remains mostly unchanged. End dates for summer school programs will not change, and start dates for staff also remain the same. Ragsdale said students will not have to make up the two missed weeks of classes, and the delay will not affect the weeklong breaks in September or February at this point.
“All we’re asking for is to delay the first day of students until August the 17th,” Ragsdale said. “The school district calendar remains intact, with the exception of what I’m asking for today.”
After-school programming will be available once students return to school on Aug. 17.
Ragsdale said face-to-face instruction will look different this year. The superintendent will encourage, but not mandate, students and teachers to wear face coverings in schools.
“We are strongly encouraging masks,” Ragsdale said. We would expect our employees and students to wear a mask, but we’re going to stop short of saying they’re required.”
Ragsdale went on to say that the mask policy, along with “everything we’re saying today, still, is subject to change.”
The superintendent said the district is operating under the assumption that schools will be at full capacity, and social distancing will not be possible in a classroom setting.
“I don’t want to give the impression that we’re going to keep kids 6 feet apart,” Ragsdale said. “In a classroom, regardless of how many kids are there, we’re going to do everything we can to make as great of a distance between students and teachers, even when they change classes and such. That’s why mask wearing is going to be very important.”
Ragsdale added that schools will feature multiple hand sanitizing and handwashing stations.
The district will not conduct COVID-19 testing for students and staff during the school year, Ragsdale said.
“We’re not doing any testing in the school district, but when those situations occur where somebody has tested positive, we do have our nursing staff and our nursing supervisor who communicates directly with (the state Department of Public Health) and the local Cobb-Douglas board of health,” Ragsdale said. “And then we get those communications out, as required by them, to all the individuals who may have been exposed to that positive case.”
The superintendent noted that individuals who test positive will not be identified to the public.
Many details of virtual instruction remain undecided. When asked if virtual instruction would be held over Zoom, Microsoft Teams or another platform, Ragsdale said the format for remote learning has yet to be determined.
Students who sign up for virtual instruction will require a device and access to the internet. Ragsdale said the county has “a good amount of devices” to distribute, but the allocation of devices will be “based upon true need.” High school students will be prioritized to receive devices, then middle school students and then elementary students.
The district will not be able to provide internet access to students who do not have it at home.
“We are not going to be in a position to address very much of that, if any at all,” Ragsdale said. “We do not have the ability to address internet access as a school district. But I do know that, through working through the process of the parents and families needing access to devices, that Comcast … does have a program in place for high-speed internet access for those users that need it.”
Ragsdale said the district has not decided if teachers instructing virtual classes will work from home or from school. He is also uncertain if students in virtual learning will be able to participate in extracurricular activities at school.
Students who participate in virtual learning for the first semester will be able to switch to in-person learning for the second semester, and vice versa.