Russell County students can return in-person on Oct. 12

In less than three weeks, Russell County students will have the ability to return to in-person instruction.

That comes after a 4-1 vote by the Russell County Board of Education this week approving a plan that would allow in-person instruction within the district on a modified schedule.

The plan splits middle and high school students into two groups, based on the first letter of the student’s last name. Students with a last name beginning in A-L will have the option to attend classes in-person on Monday and Tuesday. Students with last names beginning in M-Z would attend Thursday and Friday.

On Wednesdays, every student will participate in virtual learning with extra cleaning and sanitation occurring in the schools on Wednesdays.

On days that students are not physically in the classroom, they will participate in virtual learning, creating a schedule of two days in-person and three days virtual.

Elementary schools will be on a different schedule. All elementary students will be able to attend classes in-person on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Like with the middle and high school, Wednesdays will be for virtual learning with the district using that day to provide additional cleaning and sanitation in the schools.

Preschool students will either be on a Monday/Tuesday schedule or a Thursday/Friday schedule, according to the plan.

Those who are in transition grades i.e. kindergarten, sixth grade, and ninth grade, will have orientation days as they enter into a new school. Kindergarten students returning to school will be in the classroom on Sept. 30. Sixth and ninth grade students returning to the classroom who have a last name beginning with A-L will also attend on Sept. 30 and those with a last name beginning in M-Z will attend on Oct. 1.

There are many households where there are multiple students in the household who have different last names. In those cases, all students in the household would follow the schedule based off the first letter of the oldest student’s last name.

Ford said splitting into two groups at the middle and high school level is a common idea being put forth by school districts around the state because those schools have more students and larger class sizes. This makes social distancing policies easier to implement and will be easier for contact tracing purposes as well as limiting possible exposures.

Of course, Russell County Schools Superintendent Michael Ford said parents have the option to send their students to school or they can choose to continue with virtual education through the week. Ford said he recognizes each situation is different and some families have concerns about sending their students back to the physical school building, so parents/guardians will have that choice.

“Parents and guardians will certainly have that option during these uncertain times,” Ford said. “We want parents to have the option to receive virtual education for their student throughout this entire school year.”

Ford said that planning for the day in the middle of the week for extra cleaning and sanitation drew positive reviews from the local health department.

“They were very appreciative of this plan and this approach, and really liked the idea of that middle of the week cleaning schedule for the schools,” Ford said.

The plan is subject to change though, Ford said. The school district is using the metric implemented by the state that color codes counties based on the county-wide incidence rate of COVID-19, determined by the number of average daily cases per 100,000 population based on the previous seven days.

As of Thursday morning, Russell County was in the yellow range, down from the orange category that Russell County was in last week.

Once a county gets into the red category, school districts are recommended to cease in-person instruction and go to virtual education.

Ford said that in the midst of this pandemic, anything can happen and that includes an outbreak of COVID-19, which could force the schools to go back fully virtual, and said everybody needs to be aware that is a possibility, although he remains hopeful that the district can continue to move toward expanding in-person instruction.

Murray votes “no” on return plan

Board member Gerald Murray was the lone “no” vote on the plan. Murray said he believed that small children did not fully comprehend the risks at play by touching each other or being in close contact. Murray said he considered changing his vote, but ultimately still didn’t feel comfortable voting in favor.

Murray said seeing other school districts around the state return and then shut back down in a matter of weeks has made him cautious and he doesn’t want to see that happen in Russell County.

“I have six grandchildren and I just watch them, and I just don’t see how you can keep six, seven, or eight-year-old kids from touching each other and all that,” Murray said. “… I’ve been tempted to change my vote to yes, but when I see these kids, these ones that are too little to know the risk they’re taking, I’m going to stick with my vote and vote no on this. I hope that I am making the wrong vote on this.”

Ford told Murray he agreed that the last thing he wants is to return to the classroom only to have to shut it down again.

Murray said he appreciated the plans in place to keep students and teachers safe as they return to school, and hopes that the number of cases remain low when students make their way back to the classroom.

“At the end of the day, whether virtual or in-person, we’re going to educate our students,” Ford said.

“It’s going to take our entire community.”

“It’s going to be important for our entire community to embrace this, because it’s going to take our entire community for us to get back to school and for us to stay in school.”

Those were the words of Russell County Schools Superintendent Michael Ford earlier this week at the Russell County Board of Education meeting, speaking about the district’s plan to return to the classroom and in-person instruction.

Ford said the community needs to buy in to taking precautions against COVID-19 for the district to be able to do this. He said teachers and school staff are doing everything they can, but in order to keep the community spread low, it will take more than just school district employees taking precautions.

“We can come back to school and our students will wear masks and our faculty and staff will wear masks,” Ford said. “They’re doing an awesome job right now. They have the option to teach from home, but if you drive by our schools right now, you might think school was in session because the parking lots are full. Teachers are coming to school so they can be in the classroom and make use of that. They’re doing that and as they do that, they come in and they check their temperature, they use the hand sanitizer, they go to their classroom, they shut their door, and then they can take their mask off.”

With the metric that school districts are using to make decisions about school, one of the key components is community spread, or the number of cases per 100,000 population over a seven-day period.

“It’s important that we realize the metric the state has put out, the one I am recommending we go by, is not just a school issue,” Ford said. “It is a community issue because the metric is for community spread. I’ve heard some comments in talking to different folks who say ‘it’s only the nursing home’ or ‘it’s only this.’ Well, none of us live in a bubble. This is just Michael Ford speaking, but we none live in a bubble. People come and go from the nursing home by default because they work there and we’ve seen that evidenced in other counties. If there’s an outbreak in a long-term care facility, then by default, there is community spread.”

“I’m honestly a little concerned about fall break,” Ford added later. “I hope that we all make good decisions during fall break and consider where we go and what we do.”

Ford continued in talking about returning to school.

“I’m not a physician, but I know physicians worked on this,” Ford said. “I’m very cognizant that there is a lot of difference and debate among physicians. I get that and at the end of the day, it’s OK to say that nobody knows. In reality, nobody knows. This is all still new. We have to make decisions and we have to make decisions that we feel are best for the community.”

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Zac Oakes is the News and Sports Director for LakerCountry.com and Laker Country WJRS 104.9 FM.