When Oconee County Schools reopen for in-person instruction on Aug. 5, students, teachers, and staff will be provided with masks and encouraged to wear them when social distancing is not possible, but masks will not be required for students.
Students riding the school system’s buses, however, will be required to wear masks on the bus.
Oconee County Board of Education members were informed of these plans at their work session on Monday through a series of reports by School Superintendent Jason Branch and school system administrators.
Parents can select a “distance/digital learning option” that does not involve in-person instruction, and parents have until July 15 to make that decision.
The school system had outlined the options to parents in an email letter and online on June 30, and a preliminary survey of parents indicates that just less than 15 percent plan to use the distance learning option.
Board members asked questions as Branch and his fellow administrators outlined the plans but never officially voted on the plans.
Just before the meeting, Ann Lynn sent Branch and the Board an email letter asking that the deadline for parents to make a decision on the instructional options be pushed back to July 20 and that the schools consider a delayed opening to allow for consideration of the proposals.
Board members and school administrators did not acknowledge that letter, sent, Lynn said, on behalf of a Safety First, Reopening Schools group that currently has 505 members.
The Board did pass a tentative budget for the current fiscal year that incorporates a $4.5 million reduction in state funding but maintains the property tax at 16.5 mills.
Superintendent Branch provided the Board with the outline of the opening plans, said that discussions were ongoing about what actually will happen on Aug. 5, and “we have a lot of work ahead of us.”
For those choosing in-person learning, school will take place on a regular Monday through Friday schedule unless there is a significant increase in COVID-19 spread, according to the announced plans.
Depending on the level of increased spread of COVID-19, a hybrid learning model or systemwide distance/digital learning model may be utilized, according to current plans.
Dallas LeDuff, director of student services, followed Branch and read to the Board a statement about infection diseases prevention procedures that will be followed.
The Board was meeting remotely, and the audio made it virtually impossible to understand what Branch, LeDuff, and others were saying.
The technical staff was not able to solve the audio problem, but it did record internally the meeting starting at the end of LeDuff’s presentation.
I have merged the videos of the meeting and embedded them below.
Infectious Disease Prevention
LeDuff told the Board that the current plan is that “Face coverings should be worn by staff and students as feasible when physical distancing is difficult.”
In addition, he said, “Individuals should be frequently reminded not to touch the face covering and to wash their hands as often as feasible.”
The schools will “provide a washable mask for every staff member and require them to wear them when they are unable to socially distance in the school setting,” LeDuff said.
Because it is difficult to maintain social distancing on a bus, the schools “will require bus riders to wear face coverings while riding school buses,” LeDuff said.
“Oconee County Schools plans to put procedures in place that allow for social distancing to the extent possible,” LeDuff said.
Social Distancing And Screening
“The number of students gathered in common areas during transitions will be limited. Based upon the configuration of classrooms and common spaces, student desks will face the same direction,” he continued.
“Outdoor recess will continue, however the number of students gathered in any particular playground area will be limited,” according to LeDuff.
“Oconee County Schools will require all staff, students, and visitors to remain home when they have COVID-19 or any associated signs or symptoms including a temperature above 100.3 degrees Fahrenheit,” LeDuff said.
“Staff, students, and visitors should also remain home if they have been in close contact with anyone diagnosed with COVID-19,” he continued.
“Students and staff who begin to present significant COVID-19 symptoms or a temperature above 100.3 during the school day will immediately be isolated and sent home,” according to LeDuff.
“Employees are asked to self-report positive COVID-19 test results and symptoms to their supervisor,” LeDuff said. “Parents/guardians and students are asked to self-report positive COVID-19 test results and symptoms to the school nurse.”
Visitors to the schools will be limited, LeDuff said.
Brock Toole, chief Operations Officer for the school system, told the Board that the school system has procured more than 10,000 masks for the students, faculty, and staff as well as sanitizers and dispensers.
Dispensers will be in every classroom and in the cafeterias, he said.
“We’ve procured enough disinfectant to electrostatically spray our system, to include our school buses, to maintain a safe and disinfected environment,” Toole said.
“Flexible seating will be removed from the classrooms where feasible and we’ll provide the maximum possible spacing between the students’ desks,” Toole said. “Our intent is to make sure we have the desks faced forward and not clustered together.”
The school system will use plexiglass and markers to limit congregating in common areas, Toole said.
“We’re going to do our best to make sure there is social distance whenever feasible,” Toole said.
“Masks will be required of any student who rides the bus,” he repeated in response to a question from Board Member Tim Burgess. “There’s no way to effectively social distance on a bus.”
Claire Buck, chief academic officer, told the Board that “families” will have the opportunity to select the in-person model or the distance learning digital model.
The in-person model will be the same as instruction before school closing this spring due to the COVID-19 module.
The new digital learning plan is a modification of the instruction used to complete the school year this spring, she said.
Every elementary school will have an external Wi-Fi access point in the parking lot and each of the two middle schools and two high schools will have two external Wi-Fi access points. Every student will have a digital device.
In addition, she said, the system has purchased devices that can be put onto buses “and parked in areas of the county with limited Internet access.”
Responses To Initial Survey
Buck said that 3,225 households responded to the request for a statement of preferences following the June 30 announcement, and that 14.5 percent picked the distance/digital learning option for at least one of their students.
Anisa Sullivan Jimenez, director of Communications for the schools, told me in late May that the system had students from 5,349 of the county’s households. (The Census Bureau lists 13,903 Household in Oconee County.)
The responding households represented, 5,337 students, Buck said, and 733 (13.7 percent) of them opted for the digital learning model, Buck said.
Of those 733, 291 are at the elementary level, 216 are in middle school, and 226 are in high school.
Last year, the system had 8,170 students.
Saranna Charping, chief Financial Officer for Oconee County Schools, told the Board that Oconee County received “a small amount, $356,000" from Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Nearly $36,000 of that amount goes to Athens Academy, she said, and Westminster Christian Academy gets $14,000. Oconee County Schools will use the remaining $300,000 for nutritional services and technology.
Charping presented the $83.6 million Fiscal Year 2021 budget to the Board, which reflects and increase of $3.3 million in local funding, resulting in large part from tax digest growth.
The state budget cuts resulted in a $4.5 million reduction in state revenue, Charping said.
The budget is balanced by taking $3.8 million from the fund balance, or savings account, and does not include any property tax increase.
In the letter sent to the Board by Lynn, the Safety First Reopening Schools group calls on the schools to extend the deadline for families to make a commitment on learning options for their children until the system “provides adequate answers to the many questions their reopening plan has raised.”
“The current plan gave teachers no input and ignores both CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations, putting students, staff, faculty, and the larger community at significant risk,” the letter states. “It also ignores key instructional questions.”
The letter asks the Board and school system to “immediately convene a group of teachers and parents to be part of the decision-making process.”
It also asked the system and Board to “Hold at least two virtual town halls where parents, teachers, and staff have an opportunity to ask questions of the board and superintendent.”
The next scheduled Board of Education meeting is not until July 20.
The letter sent to the Board also included a second letter submitted to The Oconee Enterprise signed by 33 individuals or partners asking for postponement of the decision deadline for parents.
The video below merges the live-stream video for the first 13 minutes of the meeting with the video recorded internally by the school system when it could not solve the audio problems in the live-streamed version.
The discussion of the re-opening plan dominated the first hour of the meeting and video.
Charping’s financial presentation is at 1:18:55 in the video.