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Whitfield County Schools announced this week its plan to reopen schools for face-to-face instruction as COVID-19 cases in the county continue to increase at an alarming rate.

In its plan, there is no scenario in which high school students will be going to school every day of the week. Instead, high schoolers attending in-person classes will go twice a week and participate in online learning the rest of the week.

The decision to include online learning in the district's first option differs from other districts in Northwest Georgia. In Catoosa, Dade, Chattooga and Murray counties, the plan as of now is to move forward with in-school instruction and online learning only as a back-up plan or a plan for parents who do not want to send their children to school.

Whitfield County Schools Superintendent Judy Gilreath said the decision to split up high schoolers into alternating two-day schedules was made because there are too many students to properly social distance.

"We thought this was the best way forward for our district," Gilreath said. "If conditions in our community improve during the first semester, high schools could resume face-to-face instruction five days a week."

Each high school will split its students in two groups. The first group will attend school on Mondays and Wednesdays while the other will go Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Elementary and middle school students will attend school five days a week but will adhere to the same safety and health guidelines recommended by public health officials amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Whitfield County is dealing with one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the state. On Wednesday, the county reported its highest daily total with 109 new cases.

Teachers will only check for fevers and temperatures if a student seems flush or feverish.

Masks in the schools will not be required but "strongly recommended," Gilreath said.

"The mask issue has been the biggest talk from teachers and parents by far," Gilreath said. "It seems like half want us to require it and the other half don't. Again, we feel like we made the best decision for everyone involved."

Parents are being given the option — as in many other districts — to send their kids to school or enroll them in virtual learning. However, students must be approved for the virtual program.

Households must have high speed internet and students must have their own device to participate in online learning. In a statement released to parents, Gilreath wrote that virtual learning is not recommended for students "who lack good study habits and are not self-motivated."

Parents must apply for virtual learning by 4 p.m. on July 21, which gave parents just a week to review the district's reopening plan and make a decision. Gilreath said she and the district have heard complaints from worried parents about the quick turnaround but said parents have had all summer to prepare and think about what they would do with their kids.

"We've been talking about this for weeks and the options have been out there for several weeks," she said. "We were waiting for the state of the virus, but now we have to give teachers enough time to create lesson plans and prepare for school. We can't wait for the day before school starts."

Parents who want to enroll their children in virtual instruction can do so at wcsga.net/virtual-learning.

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

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