After months of monitoring, planning, researching, developing and worrying about COVID-19, Coweta County School System students are finally back in their classrooms.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Superintendent Evan Horton said on Sept. 8, the first day of classes for students who opted to attend classes in person.
Horton officially assumed the superintendent role in June, just three months after the pandemic abruptly shut down all of Georgia’s public schools. He, school system staff and the members of the Coweta County Board of Education have made it clear throughout the crisis that their collective goal was to get students back in school as soon as they could safely return.
COVID-19 has proved that even a global pandemic can be politicized, and decisions made on behalf of the school system’s 22,471 students and 3,052 employees have certainly not pleased everyone.
Face-to-face instruction during a pandemic – coupled with navigating the tricky waters of class attendance, athletics and extracurriculars, and other components of a normal school year – will no doubt present an entirely new set of challenges, as well as opportunities to complain.
The word “unprecedented” has been bandied around a great deal since March. Operating in crisis mode indefinitely, without benefit of a historical model, has given rise to the phrase “new normal.”
We may not figure out who got it right and who got it wrong until COVID-19 is a few years behind us – until “new normal” disappears, or simply becomes “normal.”
Fortunately, we won’t have to wait years to see some of the things Coweta Schools has gotten right.
For instance, school officials ensured there was no disruption of pay for employees during the shutdown. At the end of March, the Coweta County Board of Education unanimously voted to allocate funds each pay period for all permanent employees and hourly, at-will employees.
Most employees continued to work during the school closures, so it was not only a vote for fair compensation but also ensured the school system’s workforce would stay in place, according to then-Superintendent Steve Barker.
Utilizing cafeteria workers and bus drivers to help prepare and deliver meals during the school closures was a crucial factor for Coweta families, many of whom depend on school breakfasts and lunches to feed their children.
The school system’s nutrition services department – led by director Keshia Williams – had applied and been approved for the federal Summer Feeding Program just days before Coweta Schools shut down on March 13.
Because Coweta sites had already been approved, the school system was automatically approved for a COVID-related emergency meal program, providing an opportunity for families to drive through at several school sites and pick up free breakfasts and lunches for children on weekdays when students would otherwise have been in school.
More than 100,000 meals were distributed throughout the spring and summer, and Williams and her department currently are not only serving meals in school cafeterias but continue to distribute meals curbside to off-site virtual students.
Virtual instruction has taken the form of the Empower program, a permanent expansion of the school system’s educational offerings. Empower provides the option of at-home learning for families who prefer to hold off on face-to-face instruction until COVID-19 numbers improve, and it also gives the school system some flexibility as the transmission rate in Coweta soared into the category of “substantial spread” near back-to-school time.
The school board first approved a request to delay the start of school by two weeks, then approved moving all instruction online until after Labor Day using the already-established Empower platform for all students.
As far back as April, Director Karen Barker and the curriculum department began creating digital lesson plans for all grades, in case the pandemic persisted. It was a move that set the stage for schools to start the 2020-21 school year on schedule, even before students could physically return to their classrooms.
Teachers, administrators, media specialists, paraprofessionals have worked on an individual basis to ensure their students’ unique needs are met. School system-issued Chromebook distribution has been expanded to include the youngest students, and work to ensure more reliable home access to the internet for all students continues.
By following COVID-specific guidelines issued by the Georgia High School Association for practices and conditioning over the summer, coaches have ensured student-athletes can continue to be competitive in fall sports and even keep their live cheering sections by implementing strict social distancing mandates in the stands.
Head Nurse Shannon Hendrix-Caplinger and her staff continue to seek guidance from local and state health officials as they identify and perform contact tracing on confirmed cases of COVID-19 infections and track the number and duration of student and employee isolation or quarantine periods.
The school system has created a COVID-19 dashboard on its home page at www.cowetaschools.net so parents and the community can view current information on the number of COVID-19 cases within the school system.
It’s a long list of positives. However, we acknowledge that despite its best efforts, no school district the size of Coweta’s will ever be trouble-free, even in unremarkable times. We would urge parents and families who are struggling with issues related to their children’s education or health to take their concerns directly to their teacher, principal, school board member or superintendent.
COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon, and it will continue to impact our schools – and lives – for the foreseeable future. The school system has kept its students fully in frame during an unprecedented crisis, despite some sharp criticism.
It’s past time for the rest of us to do the same.