Cobb delays start of 2020-21 school year by two weeks

Students in the Cobb County School District will go back to class two weeks later than planned.

Cobb school board members Thursday pushed back the start date for the 2020-21 year to Aug. 17 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The original start date was Aug. 3.

Superintendent Chris Ragsdale said the delay will give the district enough time to communicate information to families so they can make the best decision for their children. Ragsdale said no other calendar modifications will be made, so the weeklong breaks set for September and February 2021 will remain in place. Pre-planning dates for teachers won’t change, and those employees who normally would begin the year on Aug. 3 will resume their duties on that day.

“There are a number of things basically out of our control that is causing us to have a much shorter window than is necessary to properly prepare for the start of school,” Ragsdale said.

The district has also delayed the time frame in which parents have to decide whether to allow their children to attend school traditionally or continue using the virtual learning option. The original window for parents to register their choice was July 2-10. A new date has not been established.

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Ragsdale said the district will still offer parents the choice of either virtual or in-person learning options, and they will be required to commit to one method for a semester. Parents who choose one option for the first semester will be allowed to switch to the other for the following semester, Ragsdale said.

The district won’t require students who return to class to wear masks, but Ragsdale said they are “absolutely expected and strongly recommended.” Cobb schools is still working to determine if students who choose the virtual option will be allowed to participate in on-site extracurricular options, Ragsdale said.

The district will also not hire any additional employees, because it is facing a $62 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year. Ragsdale stressed that any decision the district makes could change due to the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Cobb County is the second district in metro Atlanta to delay the start of the school year. Fulton County school board members on Monday unanimously agreed to move the system's start date from Aug. 10 to Aug. 17 to give staff more time to make preparations amid the pandemic. Cobb board members made their unanimous decision Thursday during a called meeting.

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Cobb's decision comes days after three petitions were created asking the district to address concerns about reopening schools during the pandemic, require students to wear masks or face coverings, and provide more information about its reopening plan.

School board members Jaha Howard, Charisse Davis and Brad Wheeler asked the superintendent about student access to digital learning devices. The Cobb Schools Foundation coordinated a campaign to provide less fortunate students with laptops and other items they could use to learn from home. The initiative prioritized high school and middle school students, so some elementary school students didn’t receive devices, Howard said.

Ragsdale said the district doesn’t have an infinite number of laptops, but said the system will work to identify students and families who are in need of these resources.

Howard also said pushing back the start date by two weeks will provide teachers and staff with more time to adjust to the new demands of educating children during pandemic. He also said he hopes the district will consider improving the flow of communication to parents.

“I think we have some room to be more direct, more clear with our information so that we can have parents commit to this semester-long decision and being in the boat with us,” he said.