With the kickoff of the 2020-21 School Year less than two weeks away, and following on the heels of the school district’s decision to push back orientation for virtual learners until Aug.7, ConnectLocal spoke with Stephens County School Superintendent Daniel Oldham about Red Rage, decision trees, Chromebooks and more.
CL: Can you tell us about the decision to delay the in-person orientation for virtual learning until Aug. 7?
Oldham: So, originally when we sent out the survey with the application embedded, we got back a certain number of responses where some people weren't finishing filling out the application. There were approximately 400 surveys where the parents said they wanted virtual learning, but only about 200 that had actually filed out the application. So we started to call and verify, and the number has just grown. Eastanollee was where we were going to hold the virtual learning orientation because it wouldn't disrupt open houses or other things, but because of the number growing to over 600 now, we felt it best to move to the biggest campus with the biggest parking lot. There are some parents that will come through in a drive-through fashion - if you do not need a device and you are just turning in your paperwork, which you can bring and hand it in - you can just hand that in and head on. If you need to get oriented on the actual device - actually get the device and make sure you can log in - then you will come inside.
(Students/parents enrolling in Virtual Learning for the 2020-21 school year will have in-person orientation on Friday, August 7, from 8:30 a.m. - 10:30 a.m. or 4 – 6 p.m. at Stephens County High School.)
CL: Is the school district providing computers for all students who are signed up for virtual learning?
Oldham: We are providing a device for those who need it. In our application process, and in reaching out to parents personally, we have asked if they will need a computer. Some families already have a computer and do not need one. Other families have a computer, but have more than one student and may need to borrow the second computer. Some students may not have a computer, so we are loaning these out to make sure students have the equipment they need. It’s no difference than what they would have available at school. It’s the same device they would have had on campus. They will be loaned out as long as the student needs while they are in the virtual system, and then when they transition back to in-person classes, the Chromebook comes back with them. If they decide to stay in the virtual program all year, then the Chromebook would be returned at the end of the year.
CL: It is inevitable that some of those computers may be lost, or broken or otherwise damaged. Has that expense been factored into the budget?
Oldham: The good thing is, we (the school system) are in a good position financially, through the measures the school board has taken over the past number of years, and just tightening the belt. We did have a budget shortfall that came from the state; we have enough to take care of that and still have some reserves, but we also can buy Chromebooks from SPLOST funds, so we have a way to supplement that as we need. We’re certainly hoping everyone takes good care of them – we need parents and student to be good partners and stewards - but even when they are on campus they get torn up at times, so we have to budget for spoilage, and also after a certain period of time those units have to be updated.
CL: Speaking of finances, how has this pandemic impacted the school district's financial standing?
Oldham: We did receive some CARES funds passed down through Congress during the beginning of the pandemic, and they are woking on another bill, and it is my understanding that there is another $102 billion that may come down to schools. If that comes, it will help. CARES money is money to help us because they know there were some budget shortfalls from state funds and that there would be extra expenses. That helped and gave us some resources to make sure it wasn’t all coming from general funds and out of the bottom line. The overall impact is yet to be seen, some things have not been that bad, say in regards to SPLOST funds. When we shut down, it was my expectation, with so many businesses closed or suspended for a long period of time, that we would see a great decline in sales tax revenue. We really didn’t see that here, and I think that is a testament to having a Home Depot, which not every county has. I think a lot of people came in (from in outside the county).
The stimulus checks that went out, some of that went to food and other things, and of course restaurants were closed, but people still have to eat, so they were going to Walmart or Quality Foods and spending. You saw some things like that kept (our economy) going. As for long term? I don't know that we will know that for several years. Once we get all the way through what is going on, are the businesses going to be there? That’s yet to be seen. In regards to state funding, we did see a 10 percent cut in state funding and we are trying to do everything we can to make sure we we’re hiring only essential (personnel) and that we we’re looking at everything we can possibly do to mitigate costs in this current year. I’m hoping state funds get back to normal and then we’ll be in a good position, but we just wont know that until we see the revenue at the state level next year and whether the federal government will continue to send down money.
CL: Where do we stand with the School District millage rate?
Oldham: Our millage rate was 16,8; we lowered it to 16.67, which was the rollback rate.
(A rollback millage rate is the millage rate that will produce the same total revenue on the current year's new digest the prior year's millage rate produced.)
CL: The school district published a “COVID-19 Decision Guide” What are those policies based on?
Oldham: That is completely driven by the Georgia Department of Public Health. We took the CDC guidelines and the Department of Public Health guidelines and made that chart and made our guidelines and our protocols. I will be the first to admit that when we first started working on this, getting close to the start of school, we had one set of guidelines, and then they were changed at the state and federal level. What we have is the most current, most up to date, but It is fluid.
A lot of thing I’m hearing out of DPH and CDC is that, when re-opening our schools, we must make sure we are not treating every case like COVID, because there are similar symptoms that present for strep, for example, or the common cold, which is also a coronavirus. So I think they have worked very hard to provide some guidelines for scenarios where are some symptoms, but there are reasons to think it is not COVID - they’ve gone to see their doctor or their symptoms have gotten better over a short period of time, and there isn't exposure.
The exposure piece is the biggest piece. If you have symptoms and you’ve been exposed, it really takes it out of our hands to then say, ‘well this is probably strep.’ But if there isn’t exposure, then the first assumption shouldn’t be that it’s COVID. It is more a case of, OK, we have some symptoms and it could be various things, so we’re going to watch it, we’re going to put them in their parent’s care, we’re going to make sure they go 48 hours without a fever, all the tings that we have in place, and then at that point in time we'll look at where we are. If the fever continued, well then you need to stay home. That’s why we’re working with DPH too, we’re contacting them every day, communicating. They let us know if there is a known positive case that we weren’t aware of, and we let them know if there is someone that has self-reported, whether it is a staff member or a parent telling us about a student, so we’ll have that constant back and forth with them and from there we’ll be carrying out the guidelines.
CL: We have had a parent ask, if a parent has two or more students in school, and one of them comes in close contact with a confirmed case and has to stay home under quarantine under the guidelines, does the other child have to stay home also?
Oldham: Yes, they would, unless there was some reason, some way, shape or form where the second child was staying with another parent, for example or was separated. If they are in the same household, that would be considered “close contact” so they would have to quarantine. It is unfortunate, but there is nothing anyone can do but follow the guidelines.
CL: This school year will be a trial by fire for everyone, and I’m sure will require a significant amount of communication between parents and the school system. Have you increased staff at all in preparation for that?
Oldham: We did increase our staff a little bit, but it was targeted. At the school level, what we did is, we have hired a clinical aid for each nurse, because the nurses, on any given day, are swamped. We are very blessed to have a nurse at every school, there are districts around the state that don’t have one at all, or they share one nurse between the schools. But we have one at each school and we said, that person is going to be dealing with their typical in and out, and they’re going to be dealing with giving medications and all the other things a school nurse does, and dealing with COVID cases, and on top of that, contacting parents that are on our list as, 'hey, they were sent home under the guidelines, how is their fever doing,' following up on those kinds of things. We just didn't think the nurses could handle those type of things on top of their workload, but we also knew that the front office staff couldn't handle it because they are already dealing with increased calls. We don’t have an overstaffed front office situation at any of our schools because of what happened years and years ago and what we had to do to get back where we needed to be financially stable - they did have to pare down on some of the support staff that were non-instructional and we have less secretaries and clerks. I felt it was very important, and in talking with my head nurse, they really needed that support so we decided to get a para/clinical assistant and that person will be dedicated to the nurse to help with that management of the influx of possible cases.
CL: Should parents feel comfortable calling the school or the district office if they have any questions or concerns at any time throughout this year, especially in the beginning of the year as everyone gets used to the “new norm”?
Oldham: We always want our parents to call us regarding any issue they may have or any issue their student brought home. The only thing I knows for certain in all of this uncertainty, is we cant address anything that is not in our knowledge, so we want parents to reach out to us. But there is a tension point there, and I have a talked to all my faculty about how we are going to approach this. There are some things that we just can’t share, so if a child were to go to the nurse, and another child in that classroom tells his parents, ‘hey, so and so went down to the nurse,’ that parent may call the teacher and say ‘hey, I heard this…’ We can’t confirm that – HIPAA rules still apply; we have to be very careful that we are contacting DPH and letting them know, ‘ok here is this child, here is the staff person and here is who they came in contact with,’, and they are supposed to be the ones to call and do contact tracing and to let people know they may have been exposed. It will be a lot of communication for everyone.
CL: There are a number of parents have chosen the virtual learning option – and there are people without students in the system – who feel that the school shouldn’t offer in-person classes, and they have made their concerns known through social media. What would you like to say to those who feel that way?
Oldham: What I would say is, one of things I have learned through this whole experience – I think I knew it before, but it became very clear now – is how important, how vital, school being open is to the community. It provides the opportunity for parents to go to jobs. It provides support for students who need extra support that their parents just may not be able to provide, whether it’s food assistance or academic assistance – that type of thing. And the Special Needs population that specifically needs academic help or needs occupational or speech therapy – those things are things we provide, but when we’re not here, we can’t provide those things. If we went fully virtual, we would have to find ways to provide them some of those things, especially in the Special Ed area. But nothing beats face-to-face in terms of really being able to provide the best possible service. Also, neglect cases - there are kids and the only way that that is found out is when they report it to a teacher they really trust, who are then mandated to share with admin and we share with the DFCS. All of those things are the type of things we do to support the community every day, and there is a risk in not doing those things. And beyond that, you have socialization. Kids in middle school and high school, they need to see their friends, and that social interaction – their social and emotional growth - is hampered when they are not at school, so you can see higher potential for things like suicide and depression. School being open brings a sense of normalcy to the community, and I think that has become very apparent. I know there are risks to opening the school. We all know that there are risks, but there are risks to us staying closed, as well. So it’s a matter of trying to continue to do what we have been tasked to do and serving our community while doing everything we can to be as safe as possible, and that's why we wan to have the virtual option for anyone who does not feel safe. We want to say, ‘hey we want you to be part of Stephens County schools, we want to serve you, and if it’s from home, then we are going to do the best we can do there, and for those kid who really need to be at school for any of those reasons, we really want to be open for them, so it is trying to all things to all people, where possible.
CL: What is the percentage, across the grades, for students in virtual learning compared to in-person learning?
Oldham: It’s still fluctuating. I will say, I think it was a wise decision for the board to give us five extra planning days because we had to make these contacts with parents, making sure we know who is coming in person and who is choosing virtual. We are continuing to contact parents, even when we get to orientation next Friday, we will still have people that sign up and we’re going to facilitate their choice of in-person or virtual. We will, as always, have people move into the community after that time, and we will treat them the same way and let them choose their option.
Right now, we are between 600 and 650, district-wide, that have chosen virtual. If you take that from our total population of about 4,000 students, is about 15%. Now that is not a hard number. It may not bear out. Right now, we have 321 that have requested a device, so the number will be somewhere between that 321 and the 650.
CL: Is the 20-day time period for changing from one style of learning to the other still in place?
Oldham. Yes. They will have the 20 days. It’s 20 days, but if we have to change something between now and when we start, we may push that out a day or two, it’s basically the first month, and then we will help facilitate any changes. We will be making phone calls. Communication again is going to play a large role. One thing I am 100 percent certain about in this is that nothing is set in stone, because literally, on a daily basis, things change. I am so thankful for the community. They are very very patient with us and I know that is difficult. I talk to superintendents from across the state and some communities are not as patient, I know there are passionate people out there and I respect their passion and their viewpoints and we are doing our best to serve all people.
CL: I know the school system took steps so make sure the teachers were supported and didn’t lose any days to furlough. What about the bus drivers? The cafeteria staff? The hourly workers?
Oldham: Currently, everyone has a full schedule. So even though we pushed back the five student days, and we could have said, if we don’t have student days, we don’t need, for example, bus drivers, on those days." We didn’t do that. We didn’t cut anyone’s pay. So we are going to use that time to facilitate cleaning and to do other things. It may not be the exact days they were originally scheduled, but we have facilitated a way for their schedule to be full and no one has been cut at this time. But we are not wasting anyones time either. We are making sure if you’re getting paid for a full schedule, you’re also working a full schedule.
CL: We have heard from parents that Red Rage is going forward. Is this accurate?
Oldham: We do have some events coming up, just like we had the auxiliary show the other day, and it was outside. Anything we are going to facilitate, we are going to provide a way and a means to social distance. We had graduation and I think it went very well. We had it lined out so It could be social distanced, and some did, and some felt comfortable enough not to, and those are personal decisions. We are opening the school, and at this time we are planning to have Red Rage. That is driven out of the high school, and things can change, and do change, but we are planning to have it and it will be an outside event. I believe it is scheduled for Aug. 14.
CL: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. Are there any closing comments you would like to make; anything you want to say to the citizens of Stephens County?
Oldham: Just that I am thankful for their patience. I know how difficult it is. And I shared with all the faculty members – I went around and talked to them on their first day back and tried to express this to them, but I would love to publicly say that I know it is a difficult decision to come back and I am so thankful for the ones that are coming back and going to serve. But I also respect the ones that didn’t. Everyone has to make that decision. I do think that, together, we can get through this, and I think there will be some things that we learn from this that will live way past COVID and will benefit Stephens County. I appreciate everyone's patience, and we are going to, somehow, get through all of this. If changes come, and they most likely will, it will most likely come from above us. From CDC, DPH – they don't have all the answers and we are all working together to find the best practices in this time.
Editor's Note: ConnectLocal has sent a number of follow-up questions, based on comments and questions posted by readers on our social media site, to Dr. Oldham. A "part 2" Q&A article will be posted after he has a chance to address those questions.