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The Athens Community Career Academy building at 440 Dearing Ext. in Athens, Georgia on Friday, May 29, 2020. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach)

Concerns about the reopening of school in the fall and the fate of former superintendent Demond Means dominated the public comment portion of Thursday’s Clarke County School District Board of Education meeting.

The livestreamed meeting lasted for over six hours, but the board didn’t make a decision regarding Means. The former superintendent is still on the payroll after being placed on administrative leave in December.

A perceived lack of a virtual option for teachers was one of the most common complaints levied by community members.

“That is something that we’re interested in doing,” chief academic officer Brannon Gaskins said. “But first we need to know the needs of our students to see if that is something that we can support.”

With coronavirus cases trending up in Georgia and in Athens, CCSD has been grappling with decisions related to the reopening of the school. A letter to parents on Tuesday offered families an option between online distance learning and an altered in-person instruction model. School is tentatively scheduled to start on Aug. 3.

Concern in the community

Emails have been pouring into the Board of Education’s inbox. Five board members took over three hours to read dozens of letters each from parents, staff and community members.

Some letters started by expressing sympathy for the board members’ difficult jobs during a pandemic, but almost everyone criticized the district for its reopening plan. Some complaints mentioned the lack of a plan should a teacher contract COVID-19.

“What happens when teachers get sick and there are absolutely no substitutes to stand in for us?” middle school teacher Hannah Parr wrote in her letter. “Do we increase class sizes when the teacher count runs low? What happens when staff in the high-risk category are forced to return to work and get sick and possibly die?”

A letter signed by over 100 CCSD educators asked for a long list of additional safety protocols. Over 600 other community members signed a petition asking for a delayed start to school.

District 2 member Antwon Stephens acknowledged the frustration, calling on his colleagues to hold a special session on delaying the start of school to after Labor Day.

“I believe that the rush to go back to school has really disappointed a lot of people,” Stephens said. “I believe that there’s a lot that needs to be discussed [at a later date].”

Additional reopening information

CCSD’s reopening task force relied on guidance from the Georgia Department of Education and Department of Public Health in constructing its fall plan, Gaskins said.

The task force consisted of four groups: operations, facilities, instruction, and health, safety and wellness. There are no teachers or students on the task force, whose members’ identities were unavailable to the public until Thursday’s meeting.

Schools will need to identify an isolation waiting room or area for students or staff displaying COVID-19-like symptoms. Water fountains will be disabled and field trips eliminated. The Hilsman Health Center, which opened on Monday, could soon be hosting a mass testing day for CCSD staff and families, Gaskins said.

Class sizes will probably be limited to 12-15 students, Gaskins said.

The board voted 7-2 to adopt i-Ready, a digital learning program created by Curriculum Associates. CCSD will use it as a way to measure student proficiency and assign personalized work based on a diagnostic assessment for English and math, according to the meeting agenda. Stephens and District 8 member John Knox voted against the measure.

Alps Road Elementary School and Gaines Elementary School piloted the supplemental program last year.

i-Ready works with 400,000 educators across all 50 states and with 642 Georgia schools, according to the company’s 612-page proposal to CCSD. The program hasn’t been peer-reviewed, according to a 2018 article in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, will fund the adoption of i-Ready. It will cost about $500,000 this year and around $400,000 for each following year, Gaskins said.

Chief financial officer Chris Griner said during the meeting that CCSD is in great financial shape. The district passed its budget on June 25.