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Students return to school at Barrow Elementary School on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020 in Athens, Georgia. Athens' students have the option of continuing online learning or opting for in-person instruction at Clarke County School District elementary and middle schools. This is the second week students have attended in-person classes since schools closed in March 2020 due to COVID-19. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach; @taylormckenzie_photo)

Aside from teachers sitting alone in their classrooms talking to a computer screen full of students, all Clarke County School District buildings were empty until Nov. 9. 

In July, CCSD delayed the start of school from Aug. 3 to Sept. 8 in part to assess the impact of the return of University of Georgia students to Athens. Less than a week later, the district decided to start the school year online. 

Electing for virtual learning over in-person instruction proved to be the right decision, said Interim Superintendent Xernona Thomas in a town hall on Oct. 28. The district, however, wanted to return to in-person learning to maximize students’ education. 

Athens had a spike in COVID-19 cases in early September that coincided with the return of UGA students. The city’s positive cases per capita ranked among the highest in the country. 

Then the numbers declined, and CCSD started working on a plan to return to in-person learning. Beth Moore, the district’s communications manager, announced the plan in September while acknowledging CCSD must react to UGA’s decisions. 

About 70% of elementary and middle school CCSD students returned to the classroom on Nov. 9. The other students opted to continue virtual learning. High school students are expected to have the option to return in January, according to a reopening FAQ

CCSD originally wanted to reopen with a positivity rate of less than 5% in Clarke County and less than 100 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 Athens residents within 14 days before the planned opening date. It revised its goal after receiving updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September. 

In its new guidelines, the CDC kept the test positivity rate and the number of new cases per 100,000 as primary factors that schools should use while making reopening decisions. The CDC also added secondary indicators, such as the percentage of occupied hospital inpatient beds and the percent change in new COVID-19 cases. 

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Students return to school at Barrow Elementary School on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020 in Athens, Georgia. Athens' students have the option of continuing online learning or opting for in-person instruction at Clarke County School District elementary and middle schools. This is the second week students have attended in-person classes since schools closed in March 2020 due to COVID-19. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach; @taylormckenzie_photo)

The reopening process convinced CCSD Chief Academic Officer Brannon Gaskins of the need for contingency plans. In normal years, snow days or bad weather might force the school district to slightly alter the school calendar. The pandemic makes things far more difficult. 

“I think it’s important as a school system for students and families that we always have a plan B as it relates to educating kids,” Gaskins said. “No one ever thought that we would not be in person since March, and here we are.”

The switch to in-person learning could help resolve a problem that has affected students across the country: inadequate home internet access. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, students without internet couldn’t do their homework. When schools closed in March, those same students couldn’t attend school. 

About 15-16 million K-12 public school students lack the internet access or devices for adequate distance learning in the U.S., according to a study from education nonprofit Common Sense Media. About 32% of students in Georgia lack adequate home internet access, slightly higher than the national average of about 30%. 

CCSD partnered with organizations, including the Georgia football team, to provide free Wi-Fi hotspots for students. The district lists 20 places students can go to for free internet access on its website. 

The return to the classroom isn’t guaranteed to last. Fowler Drive Elementary School paused in-person instruction two days after reopening when several staff members were exposed to COVID-19. The nationwide death rate is rising, with over 1,000 Americans dying per day from the virus. 

While children are at low-risk for severe illness from COVID-19, some community members are concerned about the health implications of reopening. Athens community member Jami Mays organized a car caravan protest in October to challenge the district’s plan and perceived poor air quality in school buildings. In a CCSD Board of Education meeting on Nov. 12, the vast majority of public comments expressed concern.

“What people may be reading on Facebook or hearing negatively about our reopening is not consistent with what we’re experiencing and hearing from our larger community,” Gaskins said. “I think our larger community is very satisfied with the job that we’ve done.”