Murray County school officials continue to plan for a “traditional” school year while simultaneously readying for two other possible scenarios.
“Though it could definitely change, our full intention is for school to start on Sept. 8 as normal,” said School Superintendent Steve Loughridge at the board’s monthly meeting on Monday.
School officials are also preparing for the possibility a large number of students will opt out of classroom learning and take advantage of a “virtual learning” option.
Loughridge told board members the virtual learning program would be administered by a third-party provider. The classes would be fully accredited. Participating students would be making a year-long commitment, would be required to provide their own technological devices and would not be eligible for extracurricular activities, including athletics.
Loughridge said a system-wide poll of parents showed about 20 percent were initially interested in the non-classroom option.
School board members, at the same meeting, voted unanimously to advertise a proposed budget for the upcoming school year. The budget is included in The Chatsworth Times today on page A-2. Loughridge told board members that changes to the published budget could be made before the council’s final budget vote next month.
The budget estimates $55.5 million in revenues and $62.5 million in expenses, creating a shortfall of approximately $7 million. The deficit would be covered by funds from the system’s estimated $14 million fund balance.
The budget includes four furlough days for full-time employees, which would create $888,000 in savings, according to Loughridge. The furlough days would be June 2-3, Sept. 4 and Nov. 11.
“It won’t be popular, but I think people will understand,” said Loughridge.
Murray County schools, like many other systems in Georgia, will receive less funding from the state in 2021. Loughridge said the system has been hit with a double whammy.
First, state spending for education has been cut 11 percent due to the economic situation in Georgia.
Second, the state’s “equalization formula,” which is supposed to shift money from richer to poorer school districts, has moved Murray County down the list of schools most in need for extra funding. An improved tax digest (in recent years) and a declining school population combined to reduce the equalization funds coming to Murray County.
On top of the declining state support, Loughridge and his budget team have had to factor in substantially increased spendiing for COVID-19 related issues at local schools. For instance, additional (part-time) nurses will be hired. More cleaning at facilities and on school buses has been mandated.
The three plans
The school is looking at three scenarios for the coming year. The first is the “traditional plan,” which would mean most students coming back to the classroom on a Monday-Friday schedule.
There would be additional COVID-19 safety measures in place. Children will not be required to wear masks, but it will be encouraged. Teachers will wear masks outside their classrooms and any time they are in close proximity to any students.
Teachers who are reluctant to return to the classroom will be in the “initial pool” of teachers utilized for the virtual instruction, said Loughridge.
A “hybrid plan” would become operational if the COVID-19 outbreak worsens.
This plan would have students coming to class on either Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday for face-to-face instruction, with online learning taking place on the days the students are not in the classroom.
The third option would be a full commitment to distance learning, with teachers coming to school but students receiving all instruction at home.
School officials said that the system is much better prepared for distance learning than last spring when many students and teachers struggled after classroom instruction was abruptly stopped. Since then a major training process has been put in motion and hundreds of Chromebooks and other devices have been purchased to make sure every student has access to distance learning.
Board members peppered Loughridge with questions. Among the responses:
* If a student shows symptoms for COVID-19, the student will be isolated on campus until tested. His class will be “quarantined” for 10 days of distance learning.
* Buses will be cleaned after every run.
* Students engaged in distance learning will not be expected to sit in front of a computer for eight hours. Their schedules will be flexible, helping to allow parental supervision. Students will be required to check in every day, but classwork schedules will be determined by parents.
* Loughridge said he hopes for guidance from the Georgia High School Association on what will be done if an athletic team is put under quarantine.
* Under the traditional plan, students will be allowed to participate in P.E. and to use the playground. Loughridge said lunchroom protocols are still being developed.
* Lunches and breakfasts will still be made available for students on days they don’t attend class. Loughridge said the logistics of how this will be done are still being worked out.
* Virtual learning students will have to provide their own devices because the school system’s technology platform isn’t the same as the one used by the third party provider.