Fayette opening in-person and virtual school Monday

The first day of school begins Monday at Fayette County. Students can attend in-person at brick-and-mortar schools two days a week or go all-virtual all week.

District officials say extra precautions will keep students and staff safe.

Fayette County will welcome students back to in-person classes on Monday with safety a top priority -- and a goal of avoiding the coronavirus-related issues that forced Paulding and Cherokee counties to recently shutdown three high schools.

While most metro school systems have chosen to begin the new academic year virtually, Fayette elected to follow a hybrid model. Students could opt for distance learning every day or split their educational week between three days of online instruction and two days of in-class, brick-and-mortar schooling.

And when students come back, they’ll be greeted with one-way hallways, class schedules designed to limit the number of children gathering at lockers, and classes greatly reduced in size to adhere to social-distancing guidelines.

Students will be required to wear face masks.

“By not having all students in our buildings at one time (due to the hybrid schedule and those choosing full-time virtual) we will have enough space to distance desks in classrooms and effectively reduce the amount of traffic in hallways,” Fayette Schools spokeswoman Melinda Berry-Driesbach said in an email about the reopening plan.

Fayette has just over 20,000 students.

“Plus, we are requiring students in grades 2-12 to wear face coverings. Given these measures, we believe we can greatly reduce the number of COVID-19 cases in our schools,” she said. “No plan can 100 percent prevent the virus from being in schools, but we believe we have taken the appropriate steps to greatly mitigate it.”

That concern over COVID-19 transmission has been heightened by dozens of cases of the disease reported at high schools in Paulding and Cherokee counties shortly after they opened the academic year with in-person learning Aug. 3.

The outbreak forced Cherokee Schools to close Etowah and Woodstock high schools while Paulding closed North Paulding high school. Pictures at Paulding High of crowded hallways and few students wearing masks went viral.

Fayette’s opening also comes on the heels of an early August report from the White House task force on coronavirus that said Georgia needs to do more to combat the disease and that the state faces “widespread and expanding community viral spread.”

Fayette school board member Leonard Presberg said the Paulding and Cherokee school infections have impacted concerns some have about in-person classes.

“Those incidents are instructive, not just for us as a system and how things are set up, but how each teacher and each family thinks about coming back to school,” he said. “The schools reflect how the community is acting.”

About 30 percent of Fayette students chose the all-virtual school day when the district outlined its back-to-school plan, Berry-Driesbach said. That number has risen since the outbreaks in Paulding and Cherokee.

“After the reports about the other schools came out in the media, we did have parents wanting to change their choice from brick and mortar to virtual,” she said. “Those parents were placed on a waiting list at their base school.”

Some let it be known early that they were uncomfortable with in-person classes.

India Gay, Fayette County High School’s incoming senior class president, told the school board last month that her classmates supported a virtual-only start for the school year because the risks of going back to brick-and-mortar classes are too great at this time. She said they were willing to sacrifice as much of the first semester of school as necessary if it meant they could enjoy the second.

“There is no school system without healthy students, teachers and administration and faculty,” she said. “We ask that you all keep the well-being of this county and the interest of those departing in the spring at the forefront of any and all decisions.”

To prepare for the new year, the school system created a “Winners Together” digital campaign with a 30-second public service announcement, posters, a face mask logo and reminders to students to wash their hands and socially distance.

Michelle Kalbeitzer, the mother of two high schoolers, said she is sending her children to in-person classes because she is confident Fayette has created a safe environment for students. Both of her children are athletes -- her daughter plays soccer and her son plays football -- and she has seen the care coaches have taken in checking temperatures and cleaning equipment because of concerns over COVID-19.

She said she weighed the pros and cons and decided that students not only need one-on-one time with teachers, but that they need social interaction with one another.

“I think this is the best step forward for my children,” she said.

Josh Felix admitted that he is a little nervous about sending his son to elementary school for the first time in person, but believes it’s the right choice. He is comforted that students will be wearing masks and the information he has received from district leaders -- from the superintendent to principals -- has put his mind at ease.

“Do I get concerned about what’s happening in Paulding and other counties, sure,” he said. “But my eyes need to stay focused on what our county’s done.

“The plan we’ve seen put out and the communication that we’ve had, is really great,” he said. “I think that’s why it’s with nervous excitement that we are getting him ready to go back to school on Monday.”

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