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Board Business Briefs: School Board Discusses School Reopening

Board Business Briefs: School Board Discusses School Reopening

The Cherokee County School Board at its regular meeting tonight heard an update on the start of the school year, and talked about a possible “hybrid” model for the reopening of three temporarily closed high schools.

After a wide-ranging discussion of current school operations and possible operational changes, the School Board voted, 5-1, with Vice Chair Kelly Poole dissenting and John Harmon absent, to authorize Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian V. Hightower to make adjustments, as he determines are needed, to the Reopening of School Plan in order to reopen Creekview, Etowah and Woodstock High Schools on Aug. 31.  The motion specifically excluded authorizing a student mask mandate at this time.

School Board member Mike Chapman, who made the motion, said he didn’t authorize Dr. Hightower to issue a student mask mandate because he thinks it’s an issue that should require a Board vote after advance public notice.

Dr. Hightower said he would share plans as soon as possible next week with the community for the reopening of the three temporarily closed high schools, but that he will strongly consider a “hybrid” model.  

Under this model, students would attend school in-person two days a week: for example, on Mondays and Thursdays for students whose last names begin with letters A-L, and Tuesdays and Fridays for students whose last names begin with letters M-Z.  Students would complete work from home online through the Canvas learning management system for the remainder of the week.  Students who are in smaller classrooms for children with significant special needs likely would continue to have the option to attend in-person school daily.  The hybrid model would have no effect on students already enrolled in Digital Learning.  If approved by Dr. Hightower to reopen as a hybrid model, the school then would follow-up with its students and parents with school-specific information including opportunities to borrow a laptop computer and pick up to-go bags of school breakfasts and lunches.

“We are committed to keeping our schools open for in-person learning for as long as possible.  Although this hybrid plan does not provide five days of in-person instruction in our schools, we feel it is a better alternative to reopening without changes and likely soon shutting down again due to cases and quarantines, or to offering only online learning to all students.  Two days are better than none,” Dr. Hightower said.  “When I said that operating in-person school during a pandemic would require all of us to be flexible, this situation is an example of how we need everyone to be willing to do just that.” 

While there was no evidence of spread among students within the three high schools, the closures were prompted by the rising number of confirmed positive cases, resulting mandatory two-week precautionary quarantines, and the effect on staffing and school operations.   

Dr. Hightower also is authorized by the vote to use a hybrid model, in a tiered approach, should any other CCSD high school or middle school reach a “tipping point” that would otherwise require a two-week school closure.  Instead of closing for two weeks, the school could instead close for one day to allow for deep-cleaning and for teachers to shift their lesson plans, and then reopen with this hybrid model.  No other CCSD schools are currently at risk of temporary closure, he said.

This “tipping point” for school closure isn’t a fixed total or percentage, but a case-by-case decision that takes into account both guidance from the Department of Public Health (DPH) to prevent spread within a school as well as staffing and operational issues that may affect the feasibility of continued in-person school.  By splitting each class in half through the hybrid model at these three high schools, greater social distancing will be achieved, reducing the number of students impacted by quarantines.  

Dr. Hightower and his senior staff during the meeting also shared reports with the School Board as to their division’s work related to the reopening.  Senior staff members detailed challenges that their teams are working to overcome and answered questions that had been raised by five Public Participation speakers about different facets of school operations.  

Chief of Staff Mike McGowan presented an overview of the current COVID-19 cases among students and staff and the resulting quarantines.  He noted that CCSD’s weekly positive cases and quarantine counts are trending down, and that 96% of all 31,760 current in-person students are eligible to return to school tomorrow.

“Tomorrow is our 15th day of providing face-to-face instruction to more than 31,000 students in the middle of a global pandemic … and we were the largest and among the first school districts in the country to attempt to do what we’re doing,” Mr. McGowan said of reopening for in-person school, adding that school superintendents from across the country now are seeking guidance from CCSD for their own plans.

Chief Operations Officer Dr. Debra Murdock gave an overview of the work underway by school nurses, lead nurses, school administrators and her School Operations team, in constant communications with the Department of Public Health, to contact trace when notified of positive COVID-19 cases among students and staff and issue quarantines for all students and staff who have been in close contact.

Chief Academic Officer Dr. Nicole Holmes and Chief Information Officer Bobby Blount both are working to ensure students, who are Digital Learners or in-person students learning during quarantine through Canvas, have their instructional and technology needs met.  Curriculum & Instruction is assisting teachers in providing more instructional support to Digital Learners.  Technology has formed a “customer care center” team specifically to assist these students’ technology needs.

Chief Human Resources Officer Rick Beaulieu addressed the issue of substitute teachers, explaining that while more than 500, when surveyed prior to reopening said they were willing to work, they are not all responding to job opportunities. To improve the fill rate, Human Resources is offering more training workshops for new substitute applicants, with 80 new substitutes already trained this month.

Chief Support Services Officer Bill Sebring gave an update on custodial services, noting that schools are fully staffed for regular custodial needs.  Hiring is continuing to fill the final openings for the newly expanded services team focused on high-touch areas and deep-cleaning, with an overall staffing rate of more than 90%. The School District has a 90-day supply in the warehouse of all personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer spray, and surface cleaning spray, and contractors are midway through replacing all CCSD air filters at the MERV 13 level, which is the highest usable level for current systems.

Chief Finance Officer Ken Owen updated the School Board on increased expenses for substitutes and on the loss of School Nutrition revenue due to Digital Learners’ absence from school.  School Nutrition is continuing to provide free and reduced-price meals to Digital Learners and has offered a weekly to-go meal pick-up option, at the regular meal costs, for all other Digital Learners.

Chief Communications Officer Barbara Jacoby spoke to the public reporting of COVID-19 information.  In addition to the specific notification process for those directly affected by an individual case (personal contact for parents whose children must quarantine; letter to all parents whose children attend classes with an affected student of staff member; schoolwide notification letter), CCSD has developed two webpages to provide greater transparency as a public service.  One page provides a weekly snapshot of the number of positive cases at each school; the secondary page provides a daily spreadsheet report with further detail as to cases and resulting quarantines.

School Board members thanked staff for their hard work on the reopening plan and their willingness to continue making improvements.

“I’m really proud of our Board for sticking together and doing the right thing even with the heat on us,” Mr. Chapman said, noting he has visited seven schools since the reopening to see in-person school happening and speak to teachers and staff. “We have more work to do, but [the Superintendent and his staff] are working day in and day out trying to make it better.”

School Board member Clark Menard echoed many of Mr. Chapman’s statements, and noted that making difficult decisions is what they signed up to do.  The Board’s purpose, he said, “is to guide our schools through tough challenges like this.”

School Board Chair Kyla Cromer thanked the community for its support, adding that she greatly appreciates the efforts by parents to thank teachers and staff.

“It gives our community a sense of hope and a sense of usefulness in this time,” she said of the CCSD Positivity Vibes #CCSDunited Facebook group and its members’ volunteer efforts.

She said that her positivity should not be mistaken for a misunderstanding of the situation or an unwillingness to hear and respond to criticism.

“The reality of the situation is very serious,” she said.  “Being positive does not negate the seriousness of this.”

As part of its approval of the monthly personnel report, the School Board approved the retirement at the end of November of Renée Coleman, the executive administrative assistant to the superintendent.  Ms. Coleman, who has worked for CCSD since 1998 and began in her current role in 2017, over her tenure has worked both in schools and in the CCSD administrative office.

“I am deeply grateful to Renée for her dedication and the many long days she has worked in order to support me and our organization as a whole,” Dr. Hightower said.  “She brings professionalism to all that she does, along with incredible care for our students and her colleagues.”  

Dr. Hightower also made a surprise presentation during the meeting – the first of his four annual Game Changer Awards recognizing excellence in instruction.  He presented the Game Changer for Instructional Support posthumously to the late Dr. Rouel Belleza, which was accepted by his wife, Ellie. 

Dr. Belleza, who passed away in November after a two-year battle with gastric cancer, served as CCSD’s first supervisor of student services in the Office of School Operations and, in this role, laid the groundwork for a future Virtual Academy program and was the original architect of the District’s Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) initiative.

“Rouel recognized early on that, while our primary mission is teaching and learning, effective instruction can’t happen if we neglect the mental health and well-being of our students and staff,” Dr. Hightower said.  “His work has saved the lives of at-risk students and that’s a legacy that will live on for generations.”

The School Board also:
•    Heard a presentation by Mr. Chapman on the Be Pro Be Proud Georgia ( initiative launched by the Cherokee County Office of Economic Development, with support from CCSD, to educate high school students and young adults about possible careers in the essential skilled trades;
•    Recognized 2020-21 Student Advisor to School Board and Student Delegates (in-person recognition);
•    Recognized Duke University Talent Identification Program (TIP) students who achieved Grand and State Recognition during their seventh-grade year (virtual recognition);
•    Recognized 2020 Young Georgia Authors Competition winners (virtual recognition);
•    Approved monthly financial reports for June and July;
•    Approved 2020-21 School Improvement Plans;
•    Approved the monthly capital outlay projects report;
•    Approved the ratification of the ABM Industry Groups, LLC EnhancedClean Program Contract for the 2020-21 school year;
•    Approved granting a permanent right of way to the Cherokee County government for its Bells Ferry Road improvement project; 
•    Approved a resolution to supplement School Board Policy JCAC; and,
•    Met in executive session to discuss real estate and then returned to open session and authorized the superintendent to enter into a sales contract for undisclosed property at an undisclosed location. 

The next School Board meeting is 7 p.m. Sept. 17, 2020.