ELLIJAY, Ga. – Gilmer has begun discussions of its return to school in August with details available to push back the starting date for students as well as offering an option for their return and will be making final decisions on details tonight.
Debates have arisen among board members for restrictions and requirements for the return. The school system is set to have part of its students attending a “virtual academy” while others will be attending class in person. Schools Superintendent Dr. Shanna Downs spoke this week saying that families could choose how to attend.
Committing to one or the other means dedicating to that form for a semester for high school or 9-week period for Grades K-8, according to Chief Academic Officer Lottie Mitchell.
Another major change coming at the beginning of the year will be moving back classes by four days. This push back, said Downs, is focused on allowing extra time to train and prepare staff for their changes in the coming school year through cleanings, classes, and training for lessons whether face-to-face or through the virtual academy. This will also push the first day of school to a Friday as Dr. Downs said in their July Work-session, “Our staff just seems to prefer to start on Friday so that we learn from Friday, especially when changes are being made.”
She went on to explain that the Friday start also allows teachers to meet students and go through classes and then have two days to make any last minute changes they feel are necessary. Taking the weekend to regroup allows teachers to work in classrooms or perform alterations to plans after that day without having to try and push through a week before they have any large portion of time to achieve this.
Although the board gave approval for this change through board polling, this change of days must be ratified as other decisions are approved tonight, Thursday, June 23, 2020. Yet, Dr. Downs cautioned the board and citizens saying that even this close to class, new information is still coming in requiring new changes from the state. A new state order could completely change the plans that the school system has made.
Returning to class in-person will see changes for students as they see separations by glass or Plexiglas in certain areas supporting social distancing, some hallways in schools will be one way traffic and some will only walk on one side of the hallway in a direction, increasing use of hand sanitizer and hand washing, and reducing numbers of students in a room among others.
The school system, currently, will make decisions on closing schools and when that is needed.
As for usage of masks, situations like school buses will not allow for social distancing needs. As such, the current plans are to require masks for students on buses along with assigned seats. They will also strongly recommend mask usage in classes. To that end, the school system will be giving masks to students and they are also planning on obtaining disposal masks for bus drivers to hand out if a student forgets or loses his or her mask.
The board is also installing water bottle fillers in some schools to combat water fountain usage.
To support the health of staff and students as they return, the board has purchased 5,000 masks, ten additional no-touch thermometers in addition to the ones that nurses already have, 250 gallons of hand sanitizer, and other items like bottles, spray bottles, towels, cleaning equipment, disposal gowns, and face shields.
The board also confirmed updates with their janitorial service, ABM, as for cleaning and requirements for the new needs for cleaning.
Board Member Tom Ocobock questioned the school systems response for students in class who may test positive for COVID-19.
Dr. Downs responded saying that they would not be put into the same virtual academy style as those who opt into it. Instead it will be more similar to distance learning they did in the Spring or make-up studies as with normal years dealing with sickness. Additionally, the school will be utilizing online plannings used in Google Classroom allowing a seamless transition to distance learning and then back into class when they are cleared.
In such a case, Dr. Downs assured the board that the systems had methods in place for contact tracing as well should the need arise.
The board also touched on some other ideas that may or may not be utilized such as rotating using the lunchroom for some while others might eat in classrooms.
Virtual Academy will be an all new program different from the springs distance learning for students. The new program works through Edgenuity (Grades 6-12) and Odysseyware (Grades K-5). The school system has already began pilots with the program in recent years.
While the program has options for Edgenuity teachers to be used, Mitchell said the Gilmer would use their own Gilmer County Teachers as facilitators for the program and to follow up with students as they guide them along.
These facilitators will be able to track student progress and log-ins during the return to class for attendance recording through their Chromebooks as well as viewing students’ notes taken. Additionally, teachers can add, remove, or reorder lessons and features for students as needed.
With Odysseyware, a Teacher Authoring Tool creates lessons, projects, or assessments from scratch and embed media and links within assignments personalizing the lessons as they need.
For those with special needs who return virtually, teachers can adjust grade weights & passing thresholds, read text aloud at different speeds, allow additional attempts on assignments and assessments, adjust the time for assessments, customize course content for remediation, acceleration, and support, and allow students to test out of mastered content.
These options for Virtual Academies are also time flexible as Mitchell said students who may decide or need to get a job can work around the hours and log on at anytime during the day. Dr. Downs said at this time they are considering implementation plans as they might have a teacher teach several lessons in person and then one period of virtual. Additionally, students who fall behind in the Virtual Academy may be asked to return to school in person to recover their grades. Students attending virtual academy will sign contracts to be fully aware of the expectations and responsibilities of the program.
Yet, these plans are still being discussed and should see updates tonight as the board continues weighing options and citizen response. One detail yet unsettled among the board is how to handle students in virtual academy wishing to participate in extracurricular activities. Board Member Ronald Watkins noted his displeasure with everything coming down to last minute decisions, but Dr. Downs explained that they are still getting changes from the Department of Education and are trying to add in final alterations as needed.
Continuing the separation between those attending in-person and those attending online, Dr. Downs said that those opting to go online are not going to get the same experiences as those in class, but the board is attempting to feel its way through the new program accommodating those students whenever and however possible.
For citizens wishing to know more or asking questions, Dr. Downs published a video covering parent concerns as well as the board is now keeping a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) sheet upon their website.