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Covid-19: One Year Later… A Look at Chattooga County Schools

What has made Chattooga County Schools successful this school year, according to Superintendent Hosmer, it is two words: “The people! This school system has the most amazing people working for it. I also believe the communication between the public and parents, the Health Department, and the schools have helped us navigate through these times….  And just to be honest with you, a lot of prayer.”

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One year ago, on March 16, 2020, Chattooga County Schools closed its doors due to COVID-19 concerns. Superintendent Hosmer made the announcement that acting on the advice of Governor Kemp and the Department of Public Health concerning COVID-19, the School System would be closed March 16th through March 27th. Students were expected to return on March 30th, but the school doors remained shuttered for the remainder of the school year.

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AllOnGeorgia reached out to Superintendent Hosmer and Eddie Elsberry, Chairman of the Board of Education, to get their thoughts on COVID-19 one year later.

“We had a faculty meeting with the entire staff on March 13, 2020 where I gave instructions to teachers to prepare plans for a two-week shutdown. We had no idea that day would be the last time we would see each other until July 28, 2020,” Hosmer said.

“I knew Covid-19 was a major health issue but I honestly didn’t think we would be out for the remainder of the year,” Elsberry said.

Superintendent Hosmer was left to figure out internet concerns in the rural Northwest Georgia county, while also juggling the task of keeping his students and staff safe at all times, providing 7,400 meals weekly, paying the teachers, para-pros, bus drivers, custodians, and trying to prepare for every scenario a family might be facing, as the goal posts and protocols constantly changed.

Hosmer and Elsberry worked together to navigate through the uncharted Covid-19 waters for the remainder of the 2020 school year and used the summer to prepare for the reopening the schools.

On July 30, 2020, Chattooga County was the first school system in Georgia to return to in-person classes. “We had not seen our students in-person since March 12, 2020, we felt like the best place for our students to be was back at school. From March to July our system worked hard to create a solid plan for returning our students to class. We have had a few ups and downs, but I believe we made the correct decision to return to in-person learning this school year,” Hosmer said.

“We had a goal to start back on our scheduled date and our system had a great plan to open up. We felt that delaying the start of school was not the best option. We wanted to get the students in the classroom and allow teachers to work with them on our virtual learning plan so they can transition from in-person to virtual overnight if needed,” Elsberry added.

Obviously, the halls of academia are some of the most impacted from Covid-19 as many systems throughout the country are still trying to figure out how to educate during a pandemic. “I do not understand why some systems haven’t opened. The students are the ones who not reopening hurts. They are falling behind more every week those systems stick their head in the sand and hope their problems will go away,” Elsberry said.

“A heightened sense of our health and personal space has been something never seen before at this level. Every person at every level in the system has had some impact on their jobs due to the virus. It seems additional steps of some sort are applied to every aspect of academics and sports. Some of the precautions have relaxed but I don’t think we will ever “do education” like we did before Covid-19,” Elsberry said.

Superintendent Hosmer added, “a lot has changed since March 2020. We hired additional nurses for the school system, teachers have had to adapt to teaching kids in the classroom while also teaching kids remotely, everyone is expected to do some type of cleaning/disinfecting each day, custodians have had to ramp up their cleaning and disinfecting, bus drivers have had to help disinfect their buses, lunchroom staff has had to prepare meals for in-person learners as well as meals to be delivered home to distance learners, and we have had several tele-conference board meetings. I could probably list even more changes that have taken place, but instead, I will say, that through all the changes and new expectations, everyone has risen to the challenges we have faced in this NEW normal.”

Everyone Rising to the Challenge

Chairman Elsberry and Superintendent Hosmer knew that if school was to be successful and remain open, it was going to take the entire “Tribe” working together.

“It has been awesome to see the grit and determination of the schools and community working through all this. Our staff, students, and parents have been understanding of the constant ebb and flow of information with changes coming weekly, daily, and sometimes hourly. Since day one of the school year, we have been completely transparent with our number of cases and quarantine. In doing this, we have had honest numbers to work with and our numbers have been very favorable when compared to many other systems. We have followed the quarantine protocol without variance and that has helped keep the positive case numbers down,” Elsberry said.

Chattooga County Schools release a COVID weekly report each Friday to all media. Numbers of positive cases and those quarantined are reported for each school, the county office, the education center, transportation, and maintenance departments. “While it has not been perfect, I believe everyone that has anything to do with our school system has risen to the challenges we have faced. We have gone from as many as 30 cases reported in a week, to as you mention, one case reported last week. We still must be vigilant in our approach to staying in school and rely on the information that parents give us.”

As vaccinations are becoming available to teachers in the state of Georgia, Elsberry and Hosmer hope we are finally on the other side of COVID. “I would encourage and hope that everyone will get vaccination when it is available to them. The vaccination has shown it works and in the future, it may very well be another vaccination required by public schools,” Elsberry said.

Chattooga County Schools had approximately 150 faculty and staff vaccinated Monday, March 8th by the Chattooga County Health Department. “We also have had several faculty and staff vaccinated before Monday. We have been concerned from the beginning about the well-being of all stakeholders. We have done our best to follow the guidelines that have been given to us by the CDC and Department of Public Health,” Hosmer said.

The financial cost of Covid, according to Elsberry, “a huge amount of money has been spent on cleaning and personal protection equipment. Loss of revenue from fundraiser and athletic events have hurt those areas as well.” Hosmer explained how the budget had been impacted and steps the system did locally to protect teachers:  “We took a 10% cut from the State in 2020. Our system has done a great job of working through those cuts and tightening up everywhere possible. Our system received CARES money from the Federal government to help offset the losses in state revenue. Also, our local revenues are holding strong, and we plan to end the current year better than first anticipated.”

Chattooga Athletics participated in all Fall and Winter sports, and currently student athletes are participating in Spring sports, Elsberry and Hosmer say this was a key area of priority for the system. “Trying to have some sort of normalcy to the year is critical. Sports, FFA, and other after school programs are critical to keeping students engaged in academics and classwork. Some students come to school to participate in those activities and if they are canceled then those students may choose not to come to school or not to do their virtual learning,” Elsberry said.

What has made Chattooga County Schools successful this school year, according to Superintendent Hosmer, it is two words: “The people! This school system has the most amazing people working for it. I also believe the communication between the public and parents, the Health Department, and the schools have helped us navigate through these times….  And just to be honest with you, a lot of prayer.”

“When things get tough our people and students will rise to the challenge,” Elsberry said.

The school system offers a virtual option for students who are high risk or have other reasons to not attend in person. Michelle Helie is responsible for coordinating the online/virtual program. “We felt it necessary to give our families an option of returning to in-person learning or learning from home this school year because of all the unknowns about COVID. Having never experienced anything like this before, I would consider what the system has been able to accomplish this year a success,” Hosmer said.

 

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Casie Bryant is the NW Georgia Regional Manager for AllOnGeorgia.

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