The Athens City School District has implemented a plan where students will gradually be re-introduced to in-person learning after nearly two months since classes have begun online.

“This gradual reintroduction of students into the building will allow us to make sure our safety protocols are being implemented with fidelity in an effort to provide the safest environment possible for our students,” Tom Gibbs, ACSD superintendent, said in an email.

Preschool began Monday, with kindergarten, seventh grade at Athens Middle School and both eleventh and twelfth grades at Athens High School starting Oct. 19.

Gibbs said younger children were chosen to be introduced first due to the difficulties they have in accessing the online curriculum if an adult was unable to be present during class.

“(Working) families have more challenges with keeping younger children at home due to supervision and being able to access and afford quality childcare,” Gibbs said in an email. 

Gibbs said students will be assigned to “cohorts,” or groups, and will have three days of asynchronous work online and two full days at school per week.

Several safety protocols will be in place. Masks will be required, most students will eat lunches in classrooms and six feet of physical distance will be maintained as much as possible.

Though many precautions are in place, some school board members have a number of concerns about re-opening.

“I think a number of things could trigger (virtual schooling),” Sean Parsons, ACSD School Board president, said. “One big one is it could come down to the governor making that decision like he did last spring, but I think it would be more likely that our superintendent and health department work together to ultimately make that call. There are a lot of variables in play.”

Gibbs said the district will be working with the Athens City-County Health Department to determine whether in-person schooling should continue.

There are also concerns about how, if a shutdown were to happen again, virtual schooling would affect the students. 

“My concerns are two-fold,” Kim Goldsberry, ACSD school board member, said in a message. “We need to make decisions that are focused on safety, yet we also know we have students who need to physically be in school.” 

Some people may depend on public schooling for childcare or meals. Other students struggle without the physical social interaction, or may not learn as efficiently from virtual schooling. 

“There are a number of (students) for whom online learning isn't working well, and it could be for a number of reasons,” Parsons said. “It could be they have poor internet, it could be their age, could be their situation at home or whatever, and for those kids, having more in-person learning would be a benefit. Public schools, in many ways, have a number of other responsibilities thrust on them. For example, having children at school so families who have working caregivers can go to work.”

Gibbs said social interaction is very important to development, and virtual learning makes social interactions significantly different. 

He also said the schools have a responsibility to support the children, and they will be looking to provide safe in-person activities as much as possible.

“Of course, in-person learning during a pandemic presents other challenges, like the safety precautions for not just our students but also for our teachers and staff, and what we could do to make learning as effective and safe as possible,” Parsons said.