The local school superintendents both had cautiously optimistic tones Thursday as they discussed the beginning of the coming school year in an online meeting for the Walton County Chamber of Commerce.
Nathan Franklin, superintendent of the Walton County School District, and Robbie Hooker, superintendent of Social Circle City Schools, talked about school openings amidst the pandemic during a Facebook Live talk with Chamber president Teri Smiley.
Both said the decision to open school for face-to-face learning was a hard one but felt school families were mostly in favor of it.
“Certainly our proximity to Atlanta and Gwinnett County is of concern to many,” Franklin said, mentioning the nearby areas where cases have soared in comparison to Walton County. “If you look at our data, we have a lighter caseload. Each district is different.”
Given the numbers, Franklin said starting on campus was the best way to go.
“We are roughly at 82% of families wanting to return to in-person learning, with just 18% wanting to go digital,” Franklin said.
Those numbers are similar for Social Circle, Hooker said.
“We’re looking at 25% of students looking to learn digitally,” Hooker said.
Both systems are offering families the option to continue distance learning, requiring those who choose to do so to stick with that choice the entire semester. But Hooker said he is glad most students will be back on campus.
“Kids have missed close to five months of instruction,” Hooker said. “The best way to catch up is face to face. It’s our job to make that as safe as possible. We’ve studied this since March and we’ve been proactive to make this a smooth transition for everyone.”
That transition will require numerous safety protocols, which the school systems are still putting in place to prepare for the return of students next month.
Some concerns include school meals — WCSD is going to spread students out of the cafeteria to maintain social distancing, while SCCS may avoid the lunch room altogether.
“The first couple of weeks we’ll probably do meals in the classrooms,” Hooker said. “We want to get it right.”
The biggest topic of dissension is on whether to require students to wear facemasks, however.
“Our stance is we strongly recommend masks for all in the buildings,” Franklin said. “We will provide masks and we expect it of our staff. But it’s a very divisive issue. People don’t like the word mandate. So we aren’t requiring it. But I think we will hit high numbers of people wearing masks without issuing a mandate.”
Social Circle is taking a similar route on masks and other safety issues.
“We’re working hard to keep everyone safe,” Hooker said.
“There are no perfect answers,” Franklin said. “But safety is on all our minds.”