Kids return Monday but with changes

Metter Elementary kindergarten teachers meet during pre-planning.

“Back to school” will be a little different this year. So much has changed locally and nationally since the sudden end of traditional learning in March. 

At that time, Candler County Board of Education, like boards all across the country, had to hurriedly develop a modified online plan for instruction to finish out the school year. Now, following a summer of preparing, planning, organizing and coordinating, the local school system is ready to greet students in the classroom once again. Or, if families so choose, the local schools are ready for a direct plan of online learning.

The effects of the COVID pandemic have forced administrators and teachers to shift some of their focus from learning and growing to simply “staying safe.”

“Our summer leadership is usually very engaging and exciting,” said Superintendent Dr. Bubba Longgrear. “We talk about innovative ways to reach students. This summer, it was different. We had to focus on just trying to meet criteria in terms of cleanliness and sanitizing. That’s not nearly as motivating and fun, but it is necessary.”

Virtual 

Open House

Open House in the local school system is a major social event as friends and families reconnect following the summer break. That won’t be the case this year.

“A lot of open house will be virtual,” Longgrear said. “We will go ahead and send out who is in whose homeroom and take away that surprise.”

Since there will be no formal Open House, MHS students will be able to view their class schedules in PowerSchool on Friday. 

Face masks

are not 

mandatory

Face masks will not be mandatory except where required, Longgrear said. 

“We are not mandating any mask, except for cafeteria workers ... and bus drivers,” he said. 

Because face masks can serve as a barrier for students who need to see mouth movement of their instructors, such as those needing speech therapy, Longgrear said specialty masks have been ordered with clear mouths.

Parents asked to pick up, drop off when 

possible

Because social distancing is not achievable on a bus, Longgrear said the school is asking parents for help. 

“Parents that can bring their students will help alleviate the crowdedness on the buses,” he said. 

Buses will be equipped with hand sanitizer pumps and students are “strongly encouraged” to wear masks on the bus. “We are trying to be preventive, but the bus is an area of susceptibility, and we realize that,” Longgrear said. “Unless we get a little help from parents, there is no way to socially distance without running a bus route three or four times a day.”

Each bus will be sprayed four times throughout the year using an environmentally friendly Ecovasive product, which is effective for up to 90 days.  Buildings will also be sprayed on Saturday before school.

For parents concerned about the spray being used, Longgrear said the team applying the spray will not even wear hazmat suits. 

Keeping 

kids safe

Assistant Superintendent John Jordan has been working extensively with Georgia Emergency Management Agency, the state Department of Education and First District RESA to obtain needed PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for both students and school personnel.

Jordan said this partnership has already secured 3,000 face masks for the district as well as forehead thermometers. “The next shipment will be much larger,” he said, “with more adult and children’s facemasks, enough face shields for every bus driver and cafeteria worker, more thermometers, foggers, hand sanitizing stations and hand sanitizer.”

In addition to that, Longgrear added, “We have really been storing up on cleaning supplies. Each classroom will have a cart that we will replenish with supplies and wipes so we can sanitize as frequently as possible.”

When students

need extra help

The special education teams and RTI (response to intervention) for students who struggle in certain areas will continue to focus on meeting the needs of each student. 

That will include evaluating where the students are as a result of the sudden closure of school and what they need in order to catch up.

“We have over 300 students identified with an exceptionality, and we have many more with additional needs,” Jordan said. “Those needs range from severe/profound to students who have a little bit of need and everything in between. We try to serve those students both in person and virtually. It’s been a monumental task for everybody.”

Statistics show that students need to be reading on grade level by third grade, Jordan said. To help students reach this important milestone, the elementary school will focus on different programs and Tiger Time to address those needs.

“They are doing a good job of integrating interventions with the students’ interests during Tiger Time, while keeping a heavy focus on literacy,” Jordan said. 

Home learning

still an option

About 15 percent of the students have opted for home learning, Longgrear said.

“This whole pandemic has created such a wide range of emotions,” he said. “Some have reached out and said we absolutely have to have school, their children need to be in school. We hear that loud and clear. 

“But there are also parents who say they are really concerned about their child getting sick or bringing something back to a family member that might have health issues. By doing two offerings, we really serve those on both ends of the spectrum.

“Kids need to be engaged with caring adults at school. They need socialization. It’s part of development. Hopefully we will soon be back to 100 percent of our students on campus, but we will try to serve the best we can those learning at home and those learning face to face.”

Because online learning is a new alternative, “We’re not sure how this dynamic will play out,” he added.

Families that have chosen home learning must be committed for the entire first semester in the upper grades and for at least nine weeks at the elementary level. Families will be required to go through mandatory training as well.

To give families time to train, the online learning will not begin until Aug. 17.

Because of the experiences in the spring, Longgrear said, “I think we will be better than we were with online learning in areas of accountability and engagement. There are still a lot of variables to work through, but we are way ahead of where we were March 17.

New programs

generate excitement

Two new programs at the middle school level give those students unique opportunities. One is the new agriculture program, directed by Alyssa Flanders, and the second is the offering of ROTC for identified 8th graders.

“I hope that those kids in 8th grade, as they are walking around in their uniform, will serve as a draw to others to be aware of the program and to want to be part of it,” Longgrear said.

Technology available

“We are very close to being a one-to-one district, with one Chromebook for every student in our district,” said Bubba Longgrear, explaining that this is being made possible because of groups such as the Education Foundation. 

By the fall, Longgrear said he believes that one-to-one ratio will be achieved.

“We are doing this for a number of reasons,” he said. “One is cleanliness. The other is if we were to be mandated to shut down, each child would have that device that they take with them. It is theirs to use.”

Doing the right thing

Masks? No masks? Different families will make different choices for different reasons. And whatever choice is made, Longgrear said, will be respected. Bullying by the “mask” or “non-mask” group will not be tolerated but will be addressed by focusing on “doing the right thing.”

“The school is an institution that is based upon rules, respect and submitting to authority,” he said, “and we are going to continue to have that environment, to create equal opportunity to have access to education and to better themselves.”

Longgrear said that this atmosphere of mutual respect also plays into the news surrounding national unrest.

“We all need to be aware that we all have experiences that drive our beliefs and perceptions and we need to be aware that there are students coming from all backgrounds,” he added.

School Resource Officers Jason Aldrich and Nathan Powell will also play a role in helping overcome perceptions regarding authority, he added. 

“We have to be deliberate in showing fairness and compassion and listening to where other people are coming from,” he said. “If we are not on the same page, it is going to be hard for the district to really fulfill the mission of giving every student the opportunity to make themselves better.

“The beautiful thing in this country is somebody can access education that is free to all and can change the social standing their family may have been in for generations with the education level they attain.”

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