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Students in Murray County, Georgia, will learn from home for the remainder of the semester as COVID-19 cases continue to grow in the county at state-leading levels.

Murray County is seeing the highest rate of growth for new coronavirus cases in Georgia. That reality is forcing Murray County Public Schools to shift to a distanced learning model for middle and high school students through the end of the semester.

Superintendent Steve Loughridge said Wednesday afternoon the decision to move to a remote learning schedule was due to an increase in active COVID-19 cases for students and faculty and the growing number of students who had to be quarantined because of close contact to those positive cases.

Loughridge added having enough staff members to stay in schools was getting tough to do because of how many faculty members had to quarantine.

As of Wednesday there were 10 students and seven staff members who were positive with COVID-19. That forced 269 students and at least 15 staff members to quarantine.

Of the more than 7,000 students in the district, about 1,000 enrolled in the virtual learning model before the school year began. The distance learning model is a slightly different one that is thought of as a hybrid and meant for students quarantining for a temporary time period.

"Our numbers in quarantine over the last couple of weeks have risen pretty dramatically," he said. "We were having a hard time covering for classrooms because teachers were quarantined and subs are like a white elephant. You can't get subs."

The change is only for older students, and Loughridge said the decision to keep elementary students at school was two-fold.

"Face to face [teaching] is the best, but the most critical for face to face is elementary, because they need it more than others because they require much more personal assistance," Loughridge said.

For the next two weeks, middle and high school teachers will also be asked to help when needed in elementary schools. Loughridge said flexibility will be key in making the next few weeks and months work.

Some parents were thrown off by the sudden change just a few weeks after Loughridge said that students would stay in school.

Marissa Ogelsby has a sixth grader at Woodlawn and a seventh grader at Bagley Middle School. She said it will be a headache to have one student at home and one at school, let alone trying to help navigate school lessons in the middle of dropoffs and pickups.

"It's not going to be great," Ogelsby said. "I need my middle schooler at school, I can't teach math the way they teach it these days. I'm afraid grades are going to drop off and kids are going to suffer. I understand why [the decision was made], but I don't think it's a wise choice."

Ogelsby said she has talked to a few friends who are in similar and different situations. Luckily she is a stay-at-home mom, but not everyone is so fortunate, she said. Ogelsby said one of her friends will have to pay to have her middle schooler go to an education consultant that will essentially double as someone who can keep an eye on their child during work hours.

In an address to parents on Nov. 16, Loughridge said students would stay in school for as long as feasibly possible but would pivot if the situation in the county and the school district changed.

"I want to reiterate to parents that if you think your child is sick, please don't send them to school," Loughridge said. "I want to thank everyone for all your help, support and everything you've done to allow us to get this far in our face-to-face instruction model and we will continue that face-to-face instruction model for as long as we possibly can. We hope to maybe even be able to get through the year."

Murray County's situation is not new in the area. Walker County Schools had to do the same thing before Thanksgiving break when more than 100 students and teachers had tested positive for the coronavirus and nearly 1,000 were quarantined.

Loughridge said it's impossible to know what will happen after the holidays.

"Call me after the holidays," he said. "I don't like to plan too far ahead because they're probably going to change."

For more information on wireless internet assistance, lunch pickups and scheduling details, visit www.murray.k12.ga.us.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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