Whitfield County Schools students to start new year Aug. 31, not Aug. 7

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Kristin Tucker, a second-grade teacher at Cohutta Elementary, visits with Kinlyn Johnson on the first day of school in August 2018. The Whitfield County Board of Education voted Monday to delay the start of the 2020-21 school year for students from Aug. 7 to Aug. 31 due to the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. 

DALTON, Ga. — A week after Dalton Public Schools pushed back the start date for students from early August to the end of that month due to the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Whitfield County Schools has followed suit, selecting the same start date of Aug. 31.

Judy Gilreath, superintendent of Whitfield County Schools, said earlier this month her decisions about the opening of the 2020-21 academic year would be made in conjunction with local health department experts, and after speaking with North Georgia Health District Director Zachary Taylor on Thursday, "I didn't think we had any other options," she said.

"We have the highest level of spread (in our community)," Gilreath said on Monday. "Keeping kids safe is the most important thing."

Whitfield County had 2,726 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Monday afternoon, 125 hospitalizations and 23 deaths, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Instead of Whitfield County Schools students beginning on Aug. 7, the first day will be at the end of August, and the conclusion of the first semester will be in late January, rather than late December. On Aug. 31, elementary and middle school students will return for in-class instruction five days per week, while high school students will be split into a Monday-Wednesday cohort and a Tuesday-Thursday group and will attend school in person two days a week.

The three days a high school student is not in school in person, he or she will do virtual learning, Gilreath said. Whitfield County Schools families also had the option to select completely virtual learning, and those students won't attend in-person school at all.

This setup at high schools is "not ideal, not what we want to do, but because of the large numbers of students" in high schools, social distancing is practically impossible if all students attend every day, Gilreath said. Additionally, "we want as few transitions as possible."

Whitfield County Schools has nearly 13,000 students, and roughly 3,700 have selected the virtual option, she said. Elementary students who chose virtual will have to stick with that selection for the first nine weeks of school, while middle school students who did so will have to learn virtually for the first 12 weeks, and high school students will have to be virtual learners the entire first semester.

If the number of COVID-19 cases decreases locally, Gilreath can bring high school students back into the schools full time, and she hopes to do so. But the system may need to resort to more virtual learning if the pandemic escalates locally.

The new calendar approved Monday by the Whitfield County Board of Education includes 169 student days and 190 teacher days. Students would still have their last day on May 28, as was the case with a previous calendar that offered 180 student days.

With 169 student days, the system has enough minutes of instructional time to meet state requirements, said Karey Williams, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. Rather than returning from Christmas break on Jan. 6, as was the case under the old calendar, students will return on Jan. 4; students will only be off Presidents' Day, Feb. 15, in the new calendar, instead of Feb. 15-17, as was the case previously; and April 5 will be a school day for all, as opposed to being set aside as an inclement weather day or a teacher work day.

The state allows schools four inclement weather days annually without having to make up the time, Williams said. Should the system need to make up time because 2020-21 sees more than four of those days, options include adding days at the end of the year.

The school board members and administrators declined to shorten other breaks for the new calendar, such as the week students have off for Thanksgiving.

The system traditionally has provided an entire week off for Thanksgiving, and it would not be well received by students or families if some of those days were taken away, Gilreath said. "Families have made plans, and any time you're going to be out (of school), then take it away, it's hard on families."

Under both the new calendar and the former version, teachers will still begin their year on Aug. 4, which "gives teachers more time to collaborate and plan for teaching virtually," she said. Whitfield County Schools was forced to begin virtual learning for all students in mid-March due to the pandemic and continued that the final two months of the year, which "caught us unprepared."

Whitfield County Schools had not done as much virtual education as some other systems, so educators have needed more time to plan those lessons, Gilreath said. "We don't want what happened in the spring to happen again."

Teachers are designing online learning modules that can be used in class and outside of school, Williams explained earlier this month. Educators are "working on those modules now to make sure we're ready to go" next month.

Digital lessons will focus on the four "C's," according to Williams. Communication, between teachers and classes, students and teachers, students and their classmates, and groups; collaboration, working together, discussing and problem-solving; critical thinking, examining why content is being taught; and creativity, providing students with choices to demonstrate their mastery.

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