A sign at Murphey Candler Elementary School in Lithonia, DeKalb County on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. A group of 72 school and state leaders were appointed this week to begin planning for how Georgia schools will operate in the fall. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Georgia begins planning for school in the fall

Georgia’s top government and educational leaders have formed working groups this week to plan for reopening schools in the fall as the federal government released long-awaited safety guidance.

The 72 members on the K-12 “restart” working groups appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp and state school Superintendent Richard Woods include current and past teachers of the year, rural and suburban metro Atlanta school superintendents (Coweta and Fayette counties), administrators from Fulton County Schools, public health officials, education organization leaders and state agencies.

Georgia’s 180 school districts will make their own decisions about whether and how to reopen their school buildings absent a mandate from Kemp. The new group will provide “expertise and perspective” for them in six areas: school meals, distance learning and teacher training, mental health and wellness, supplemental learning, facilities and busing, and access to the internet and computing devices.

That last category is led by Kemp advisor Jannine Miller, suggesting how crucial internet service is for K-12 education. Lack of access undermined learning for some students and teachers after schools closed and everything shifted online, and online learning will likely be a part of reopening plans.

The Georgia Department of Education has about $40 million in federal CARES Act funding that it can use to augment internet service in distressed areas, but Woods’ chief of staff, Matt Jones, said a broader solution for the whole state is needed. The COVID-19 pandemic is spotlighting the problem and spurring concern at the highest levels, he said, adding that solutions would pay off long after the health crisis ends.

“It’s going to take some time but I think the silver lining out of all this is we’re going to have a more urgent discussion at the state level about how to make that happen,” he said.

The group was announced days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted long-awaited public health guidance for schools and other public spaces and services, including summer camp providers.

Those providers have started going through the 60-page manual and are noticing things that may be difficult to comply with, said Katie Landes, director of the Georgia Statewide Afterschool Network. For instance, hand sanitizer, a crucial element of any reopening plan, is in short supply, noted Landes, who was appointed to the restart working group that is focused on supplemental learning. Some operators told her their facilities may be too small to stagger child drop off and pickup times, she said. Perhaps the most daunting challenge: hiring staff and doing the requisite backgrounding although some fingerprinting facilities are closed.

Schools may face similar challenges.

Landes predicted that child care will be a crucial component of any school reopening plan that does not involve a full return to classrooms. She hopes school districts will include local providers in their own local reopening advisory groups to coordinate services for parents: “If young people aren’t going to be in the school building, where are they going to be?”

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