Barring any sudden decisions by the state, the Walton County School District is nearly ready to open its doors when the Aug. 4 start date arrives, with a variety of protocols in place to try and keep students safe and healthy even as COVID-19 cases rise outside the schoolhouse doors.
School openings have been a contentious issue in recent weeks, as the struggle between proper education and proper health precautions takes shape in the public discourse.
President Donald Trump issued a full-throated endorsement of school openings early last week in keeping with his ongoing agenda to open the economy and return American life to as near as normal as possible during a pandemic.
Others, frightened by a staggering rise in cases in states such as Florida, Texas and California, have urged schools to stay closed until a coronavirus vaccine can be developed.
Dr. Anthony Fauci recently spoke on the issue in an interview with SiriusXM Doctor Radio and NYU Langone Health.
“If you keep children out of school, the unintended negative ripple effect consequences can be profound with regard to what do the parents do that they then stay off of work to be able to take care of their children?” Fauci said. “What about child care? What about children who rely on schools for their lunch for maybe the most important nutritional meal that they’ll get? So the broad approach would be obviously, but paying attention to the safety of the children, which is always paramount, but within the context of doing whatever you can to safeguard the health and the welfare of the children, we should try to get the schools open.”
Fauci issued one specific addition to that endorsement, however.
“Obviously there’s a caveat there,” he said. “You want to make sure that you do it in a situation where the safety of the children becomes paramount.”
The local school district is working to do just that, Assistant Superintendent Chip Underwood said Tuesday at the monthly work session for the Walton County Board of Education.
“We don’t know what the world will bring, so flexibility is the key,” Underwood said to safety protocol next month.
Some of the paramount issues have been keeping social distancing going on in high density situations, such as meal times or during transportation.
Cafeteria safety will be enforced by rotating serving staff in order that one case of COVID-19 won’t wipe out an entire serving line, and spreading seating past the cafeteria.
“There will be walking breakfasts and lunches,” Underwood said. “Our big concern is having kids eight to a table, all right next to one another, so we’re spreading them out and giving more room for everyone to eat.”
Other precautions, such as eliminating self-service lines, will also be taken. Even water fountains will be closed. Instead, two water bottle filling stations will be in place in each school, with each regularly sanitized.
Busing will also be strictly monitored.
“We have very stringent cleaning efforts in effect on all the buses,” Underwood said. “Each bus will be sanitized every night, and we’re fogging all the buses every weekend.”
Other steps are being considered. Students may stay in their classroom and teachers come to them, rather than the other way around in higher grades, to keep hallway traffic down. Masks will be recommended, but not required.
That last bit is important to parents. The system sent out an online survey to all families last month and got more than 5,000 responses — representing more than 9,000 children out of the 14,000-plus served by the WCSD.
Of those surveyed, nearly 38% preferred distance learning, but that number skyrockets to nearly 80% if masks are required.
On the other hand, despite more than 3,000 students allegedly being ready to start the school year at home, only 500 or so had signed up for distance learning last week.
Despite rising COVID-19 numbers, Georgia has been relatively stable in coronavirus numbers as of late, but if numbers shoot up the schedule could change. For now, though, school is set to open on Aug. 4, with the rallying cry of “Safety first” on everyone’s tongue.