MDJ: You’re announcing a return to the classroom for those families who choose to pick that option. Before we get into the details of how that works, what factors went into making this decision?

Chris Ragsdale: It had been the same three parameters that I’ve been talking about since we made the decision to start the school year in a virtual mode and delay the return to face-to-face for our staff, teachers, and students. The three parameters are, first and foremost, the community spread. As a county, we were in low to moderate spread prior to June, and then summer hit and Fourth of July hit, and seemingly we let our guard down, meaning we just kind of went back to life as usual, and that caused a very significant and dramatic spike to get us up to extremely high community spread. That’s when we made the decision, along with the other two parameters as well, to start the school year virtually.

The other two parameters are effective contact tracing protocol, and, very closely tied to that, the efficient timeliness of testing. What I mean by that is, with the timeliness of testing, we were at a point where individuals were having to wait anywhere from five to seven to 10 days to get an actual test for COVID-19. And then, obviously, the results were also being delayed along those same lines. Those two tied together were just going to prevent us from being able to come back face-to-face.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been having numerous conversations, sometimes multiple times a day, with Dr. Janet Memark of Cobb-Douglas Board of Health, and I can’t say enough about the working relationship we have with them.

Over the past few weeks, we have seen those numbers and the parameters going in a positive direction — positive direction, meaning we were going to be able to, as I have done today, announce that we were going to be able to start the phased re-entry plan.

 

Q: Let’s talk about how this plan will work. Which grades and which students will have the option of returning to the classroom and when?

A: Phase one is going to start on Monday, October 5th, 2020. Phase one will see all of pre-K through fifth-grade students and pre-K through 12th-grade special education low incidence students having the option to return for full-day instruction face-to-face.

Part of that phase one also is the after school program, or ASP as we refer to it as. That will also resume for students that are choosing the face-to-face option, and those days are going to be Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday because we’re going to still keep Wednesdays reserved for individual and small group support in a remote environment. That will also provide us an additional opportunity for any necessary cleaning and disinfecting in the middle of the week.

 

Q: Will students be able to stay with their current teachers? How will that work as students return to the classroom?

A: That’s one very important aspect of our plan because the way we have created this plan is that whether or not a student or a family chooses to place their student in a face-to-face environment or remain in a remote environment, they’re going to keep their existing teacher. And that has been our intent from the first day we started working on the plan to return.

What we realize is the relationships that students have already made with their teachers are very, very important, and we don’t want to disrupt that. Starting school virtually has been a disruption enough. It has been a rocky start. I have been very upfront and honest in saying that with you guys in the interviews we’ve done. We feel like we’re improving each and every day. We are addressing the technological aspects and the hiccups that we encounter.

We still know that there will be a lot of parents that are not comfortable with sending their kids back to face-to-face at this time, and we certainly understand that. That’s why we’re still having the remote option for all of those families that see that as a necessity for them at this point.

The other part of not disrupting the relationships that students have made with their existing teachers is also protecting teachers from being asked to do two different jobs at the same time. I’ve been very upfront with that statement as well.

When we were first offering an option to start the school year for families to choose, that’s a much different situation than us starting 100% virtual and then having to transition into making that option available. Now that we’re in that transition, it’s very important for us to maintain our teachers teaching one job. We can not afford to put anything else on our teachers’ plates. The plate has been overflowing for a long time, and during this transition, it’s going to be very important for us to make sure that that’s a smooth transition.

Another component of this plan is to make sure that we’re able to when we do have a teacher, for example, if they’ve tested positive and they had to quarantine, or they’re a contact for someone, and they’ve had to quarantine, it’s very important that we maintain a very fluid and smooth teaching and learning environment regardless of where that teacher is.

We’re also going to be working with our employees that are in a higher risk scenario. They may, in fact, be immunocompromised themselves or have a family member living with them (who is immunocompromised). So we’re going to work to make sure that we take care of each and every one of our employees to make sure that we can create the safest environment possible.

It’s also important for students. If a student displays a positive test and has been around a large number of students in his or her class and they have to quarantine, it’s equally as important to make sure that those students are re-injected into the same class, but just digitally.

It’s going to require lots of moving pieces to make sure that this is done smoothly, and I have 100% confidence that this plan is going to be the best plan for all of our families, regardless of if they’ve chosen face-to-face or if they’ve chosen to remain in the remote learning environment.

 

Q: It sounds like teachers will have classes with a combination of students who are learning virtually and students who are learning in person, so will all teachers be reporting to their schools?

A: Most teachers will be teaching from the classroom, I’m sure. But, again, we’re going to work with our teachers. I know that we will have those in those higher-risk situations, and we will need to make the appropriate accommodations for them. We are 100% prepared to do that.

 

Q: We’ve all seen the viral photo of the Paulding High School hallway, where students were all on top of each other in the hallway. What safety measures will be in place for the students whose parents choose to send them back to class?

A: I feel for those other districts who have had those learning experiences, but it’s a benefit for us to have seen that transpiring. So, one of the things that we are doing is we are requiring masks on school buses and in school buildings.

Teachers will wear masks whenever possible while teaching. What I mean by that is teachers are still going to be teaching in front of a camera. So, when those teachers are able to be in front of that camera, it’s important to know that, if those teachers can be safely social distanced from anyone else around them, they might not have a mask on because we need to make sure that they can be very clearly heard and understood.

Sometimes teachers are going to be in the classroom and might be closer to students, and therefore need to have a mask on. But when they’re instructing students from the front of the classroom or from in front of the camera, it may be absolutely appropriate that they do not have a mask on.

Social distancing, we’re going to be practicing whenever possible. In some situations, it will be very difficult, and we acknowledge that upfront. We’re going to be making adjustments.

We’re going to be opening up the ParentVUE portal to allow families to make their choice. When we start seeing those numbers come in, we’ll be able to further make some adjustments for safety protocols knowing how many students we’re going to have face-to-face. We totally understand that it is going to vary school by school.

 

Q: You mentioned a mask mandate. Will the schools provide masks? If a student doesn’t wear a mask or practice social distancing, what will the consequences be?

A: We are very fortunate to have received from the state some masks. They are cloth face coverings, and we’ve also purchased some additional ones. We encourage the students to have their own, but we’ll have some for that provision. More information can be found here.

 

Q: Is your announcement impacted in any way by Gov. Kemp’s executive orders on the pandemic?

A: No. The executive orders really did not weigh into the decision. We have just been watching these three parameters that I mentioned. That’s what we have been focused on.

I didn’t expand on this very much in my announcement, but I alluded to all of us making sure that we continue doing everything we can to keep the spread trending down because we can not afford another summer-type of spike that we saw from July 4th around Labor Day and fall break. So I encourage and ask everybody to please continue doing everything that we can to keep that spread down.


Q: If there were to be a spike, would you push phases off until the levels go back down?

A: That is certainly a possibility. That is one reason that we said phase 2 and phase 3, we gave tentative residual dates.

If we have a spike that is severe enough, we will have to take that into consideration as far as when the start date of the next phase is. Is it still going to be maintained as what the schedule shows, or is the spread situation severe enough that it would cause us to take a different path?

Unfortunately, we don’t know what we don’t know right now.

I do know that what we have been doing as a community in Cobb is working. We were in the high 400s (cases per 100,000 residents) — and 100 is the threshold for high spread — and we got down to the low 200s, and they’re continuing to trend downward, which is exactly what we need to be happening. We can’t take our foot off the throttle. We’ve got to keep doing everything we can to keep that spread low.


Q: What is the laptop situation now? How many laptops or devices have been handed out at this point, and how many requests still need to be filled?

A: I do know that we have distributed more than 30,000 devices. I do know that we have multiple thousands of devices on order, and I do know that we still have some requests for devices that are outstanding. I don’t know the exact numbers, though. We are still working to deploy devices, and we will continue to do that as long as the requests come in.

I can’t thank the community (enough), the business community, the nonprofit community, the faith-based community that has tremendously stepped up and provided donations to our Cobb Schools Foundation that have been instrumental in getting these devices in the hands of students.

We just don’t have devices for a 1-to-1 scenario. If we took every device that we had in the district, we’re a little over 50% of the number of students in the district.


Q: Some of those distributed devices came from schools. Is this going to be a problem when kids return to the classroom?

A: We don’t think so initially because the students coming back face-to-face, some of them will obviously have been issued a device, so when they come back face-to-face, they will bring that device back into the building.

The teacher also has a lot of other technology tools that will come into play in the classroom to link the remote students and the face-to-face students in the same class.


Q: Like many school districts in the metro area and across the country, Cobb began the school year with all students learning remotely. What have you heard from parents and teachers about the start of the school year?

A: There are two distinct sides to this. I get the same emails. This is one of those situations that no one has ever been part of, but it seems to be 50-50. For every email that I get just pushing for a face-to-face option, I get another email thanking us for taking health and safety as the top priority and starting virtually.

You mention the metro area. It also should be mentioned that 20 of the top 25 largest districts in the country started virtually as well, and obviously, we’re one of those. We’re, I think, number 23. To have 20 of the 25 largest school districts start virtually at the first of the year, obviously, that has never been done.

Most importantly, we’re not geared to do virtual school for that many students. Nobody is apart from the Georgia Virtual (School)… and those kinds of things.

It was a huge lift for every district. The stories are the same. I know Palm Beach down in Florida is a large district, and Miami-Dade is one of the top five largest districts, and they’re still having technological problems, and we’re still working out our hiccups as well. I have 100% confidence that we’re going to be in smooth sailing waters moving forward, but, at the same time, that does not negate the hurdles that we’ve had to overcome over these first two weeks.

I understand the frustration. I understand the frustration level for students and parents, and teachers.

All students are not geared or wired to be able to be online virtual students. Students learn in different ways, and there is no better benefit that a student gets than being in a classroom with one of our great teachers face-to-face. There’s just no negating that. There’s no arguing that.

Thankfully, we don’t go through a worldwide health pandemic, but every 100 years or 150 years, whatever the number is. I would have been very happy if it would have not come during our lifetimes, but we’re in it. There’s nothing we could have done to start it or create it, but we’ve got to do everything we can to get through it.

Even though we’re opening back up the face-to-face option, and other districts across the state and country have done the same, I don’t think anyone truly believes that we’re going back to face-to-face school just as it was in 2019.

Even though we are offering a face-to-face option, you have heard all of the different things that we are implementing, so this is not a school day that it was like this time last year. That’s not what we’re doing. That’s not what we can do because we truly have to get through this pandemic. We are going to have to do things differently.

I don’t see us not having a remote option in place for this entire year, because there will just be some families and some students that just don’t feel comfortable coming back into a face-to-face mode, and we’re prepared to maintain that remote learning environment.

We hope and pray that, at this time next year, we’ll be talking about ‘Remember how it was during the pandemic?’ But who would have thought we would have been starting school in the situation that we’re in today when we made the call to close school in March.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

A: We just ask for continued patience and understanding and, most importantly, support, because our teachers need it, our students need it, and our parents need it as well. We’ve got to make sure that we’re taking this situation on as one team.

I sent an email earlier in the year to staff and asked them, ‘Let’s be the example of how to come together for the greater good,’ and I think we have done a tremendous job of that. It’s going to take us continuing to act as one team to make sure we ensure student success.

 

The content for this FAQ came from our local media outlet – the Marietta Daily Journal.