Marco Messorri teaches his 2nd graders over Zoom while he sits in his classroom in Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary on Sept. 24, 2020 in Athens, Georgia. Clarke County School District, like many school districts across the country, found ways to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic by teaching students from a distance using an array of engagement methods. (Kathryn Skeean, kskeean@randb.com)

Monday is the first day of in-person learning since Clarke County School District shut down in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. About 70% of elementary and middle school students will return to the classroom with the rest continuing virtual instruction.

School has been virtual since the start of the fall semester on Sept. 8. That decision turned out to be the right one, superintendent Xernona Thomas said during a reopening town hall. Athens had a spike of COVID-19 cases in early September that coincided with the return of University of Georgia students.  

Conditions have significantly improved since then, but UGA reported a slight increase of COVID-19 cases for the week of Oct 26-Nov. 1. 

“We are confident in our ability to safely bring students and staff back to the classrooms,” Thomas said. “We recognize we cannot eliminate all the risk, but we will implement as many infection control measures as we can.” 

Students are locked into their either in-person or virtual learning until the semester ends on Jan. 15Chief Academic Officer Brannon Gaskins said the district is open to conversations with parents about students’ learning model since COVID-19 cases could increase. 

The district implemented several measures to prevent and respond to potential outbreaks in the community. 

Families should update their contact information and report any COVID-19 cases to school staff, Thomas said. If CCSD learns of a positive case, families with children identified as a close contact will receive a phone call with instructions for quarantine and testing. 

Each school will have a COVID-19 response team that consists of a nurse, administrator, Student Support Team member, receptionist and custodian. Decisions about shutting down a school would be made with the guidance of local public health officials, said CCSD Director of Nursing Amy Roark.

Masks are required for all students, but Roark said it’s unreasonable to expect students to wear a mask all day. Therefore, there will be scheduled mask breaks, Roark said. Students must also wear masks on school buses, which will operate at no more than ⅔ capacity. 

High school students will likely return to the classroom in January, according to a reopening FAQ. The district believes in-person learning better serves the needs of students. 

“Our community cannot afford to have another lost generation of students,” Thomas said. “We have made too much progress to go backwards.”

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