Catoosa County Public Schools will be on an alternate schedule for the next three weeks - starting Monday and ending Sept. 20 - because of the significant number of students and staff testing positive for COVID-19 and associated quarantines.
Superintendent Denia Reese on Thursday said 370 students and 55 staff had tested positive for the coronavirus over the past two weeks, triggering quarantines for 2,130 students and 120 staff members.
As a result, Reese said, it was clear additional mitigation measures were necessary to help slow the spread and keep students and staff as safe as possible.
(READ MORE: Chattooga County temporarily closes Public Works Department due to COVID-19)
Closing all the schools rather than making decisions about each individual based on community spread made the most sense to her, Reese said, because it would provide time for teachers, students and staff who tested positive to recover from COVID-19 before being expected to return to school.
Next week, all Catoosa County Public Schools students in every school and at all grade levels will participate in digital learning from home.
The following week, Sept. 7 through Sept. 17, students will transition to a hybrid schedule and attend two in-person learning days on their school campus.
On Sept. 20, students will return to school as normal for face-to-face instruction.
In-season sports and extracurricular practices and competitions will continue as scheduled during the next three weeks, per Georgia High School Association guidelines.
Asked why students will return for a hybrid schedule on Sept. 7, rather than return to face-to-face instruction, Reese said the transition period would allow the district the opportunity to monitor community spread before students return to school in full force.
"Transitioning back to school on a hybrid schedule allows for physical distancing in classrooms so we can monitor the spread of COVID for a short time prior to returning to a traditional schedule," she said.
(READ MORE: Dalton, Georgia, to offer COVID-19 antibody treatment at drive-in clinic)
During the three-week mitigation period, breakfast and lunch will be provided for students at each school, with details provided by the district.
Catoosa County Public Schools has partnered with the YMCA to provide assistance to parents concerned about being unable to find child care during the three weeks their student is not in school.
Through this partnership, the YMCA intends to guide and support students through hybrid learning and provide opportunities for physical activities and to be outside, weather depending, from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. Devices for virtual learning and an afternoon snack will also be provided.
All Catoosa County Public Schools students ages 5-13 can participate in the YMCA partnership program, regardless of YMCA membership.
The program ranges in price from $40 to $170 depending on how many days a student intends to participate. Financial assistance is available through the Catoosa County Children's Fund for those who qualify.
Space is limited to 20 students, and preregistration and a district form are necessary.
Teachers and school administrators will use the week away from in-person instruction to reconfigure classrooms for social distancing and to develop seating charts that minimize close contacts and quarantines by seating the same cohort of students together regularly.
(READ MORE: Gordon County officials encourage vaccines as hospital reaches 109% capacity)
Reese said staff will also be working to develop staggered transitions and dismissals for classes during the time away in an effort to limit the number of students mixing in the hallways. Upon returning to school, lunches will be staggered for students, and visitation to schools will be temporarily restricted.
"Keep students who are sick home from school," Reese said. "Students who eventually test positive may initially have symptoms of seasonal allergies a day or two before having a fever. Please be aware of unusual upper respiratory symptoms, fatigue and loss of smell and taste. Encourage your child to wash hands frequently, utilize hand sanitizer and maintain social distance at school as much as possible.
"I appreciate your understanding during this temporary mitigation period. I think we all agree our children need to be in school for face-to-face instruction and interaction with their peers. The transmission of COVID is much different this year, but working together I am confident we can mitigate the spread and keep our schools open."
Contact Kelcey Caulder at email@example.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.