By Brandon Martin
After recent spikes in coronavirus (COVID-19) cases, the Henry County School Board approved a recommendation to return to virtual-only instruction beginning Nov. 9.
Schools Superintendent Sandy Stayer said a month of intermittent school shut-downs combined with shortfalls in personnel prompted the recommendation.
“When we opened in-person learning, we knew we were going to have to shut some classrooms in schools when we had positive cases of COVID-19, and we know that every time there is a positive case, many people are taken out because of contact tracing and they are put on quarantine,” Strayer said.
She added that the constant shutdowns have been the division’s biggest impediment to providing in-person instruction.
“The widespread community transmission of the virus is causing us to lack staff members,” Strayer said.
Currently, 62 staff members are quarantined, according to Strayer.
“The number of school community members in quarantine continues to rise as our COVID-19 cases in the community continue to rise, and they have not leveled off as we anticipated,” Strayer said. “Additionally, we find it increasingly difficult to continue our high-quality instruction with that number of staff members that need to be put on quarantine.”
As the winter holidays approach, the likelihood of large gatherings is also a factor in the school division’s decision.
“We anticipate that there are going to be spikes in cases after every big gathering, and when we see those spikes, it usually takes out a good number of our faculty members and we end up closing schools,” Strayer said. “With the gatherings that just happened over Halloween, we are expecting next week to be very bad. We know that Thanksgiving is on the horizon, and if we waited two weeks after Thanksgiving, we’d have one week until the winter break.”
“I understand it’s very difficult for parents,” Strayer said, encouraging families to reach out to staff and teachers “to let us know how we can help them.”
She noted that the decision to open or close schools to in-person instruction comes from a collective interpretation of the data.
“There is no one data point that determines that and, in instruction, we say that you cannot make a good instructional decision by looking at one data point in isolation,” Strayer said. “One data point on the COVID-19 dashboard will not say that we close or that we open. You have to look at all the data points that are in existence.”
As of Nov. 5, the division had 3,422 virtual learners and 3,719 students are attending in person.
Strayer said that 662 youngsters have switched from in-person to virtual over the last month. Additionally, the enrollment has dropped in the division by approximately 20 students, Strayer added.
The time the division has spent under the hybrid model has been beneficial to students, according to instructors.
“We had some kindergarten and early learners who weren’t sure when they opened their iPad, how to access their information for the day,” Strayer said. “Children who have been coming in person have been instructed by their teachers on how to get online every day, how to access the Canvas page, and how to communicate with the teacher.”
Strayer said that “teachers have told me that the students that came in person were the ones that they needed to see because they were able to help them learn how to access information.”
The division plans to return to the hybrid instruction model on Jan. 19, 2021.