Photo contributed by Dalton Public Schools / The Dalton Public School Board of Education, shown left to right, front row: Board Chairman Matt Evans, Jody McClurg and Tulley Johnson. Back row: Superintendent Tim Scott, Vice Chairman Palmer Griffin and Sam Sanders

As coronavirus cases continue to rise in Whitfield County, Georgia, the school board for Dalton Public Schools has agreed to push back the start date for classes and will implement a conservative, cautious approach to reopening schools in the fall, officials said.

School will now start on Aug. 31 — a date pushed back from Aug. 6 — and parents will choose between a fully online learning curriculum or a hybrid of in-person instruction with virtual learning for all grade levels.

The plan is the most cautious in Northwest Georgia next to that of Whitfield County Schools, which has announced high schoolers will attend school twice a week and learn from home the remaining three days a week if they don't enroll in virtual learning. Elementary and middle school students are still expected to attend school five days a week unless parents enroll them in virtual learning.

Whitfield County is dealing with one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the state of Georgia and the tri-state region.

From July 9 to 16, Whitfield County averaged 6.3 new cases a day per 10,000 residents. By comparison, Hamilton County averaged 2.8 new cases per 10,000 residents in the same time frame.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 108 people had been hospitalized in Whitfield County, while 2,347 had been infected with the virus and 23 people had died.

Jennifer King, a spokesperson for the North Georgia Health District, said last week convincing members of the public that they can have an impact on slowing the spread of the disease has been a challenge for health officials.

"By neglecting to follow simple precautionary recommendations such as wearing a mask in public, maintaining a social distance of at least 6 feet, avoiding large crowds and frequently washing their hands or using a hand sanitizer, many people are needlessly spreading the virus," King said.

In a joint statement sent to the Times Free Press, the school board said the decision to delay the start of school was challenging and often conflicting.

"As a governance team, we know our community's children need to be in school and that there are social, emotional and educational factors that make the in-person environment ideal," the board said. "However, the spread of the coronavirus in our community is concerning and poses health and safety challenges that can be mitigated but not eliminated."

Alongside implementing more cleaning and limiting the number of students per bus, the district also plans to hire a coronavirus prevention and response coordinator and will require everyone in school facilities to wear a mask except when social distancing can be practiced.

Dalton Schools' hybrid plan will have half the student body at each school coming in on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other half on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays will be used as at-home learning while schools are deep-cleaned.

This hybrid plan will be in place until Sept. 14. After that, all students who have chosen in-person instruction will return to school Monday through Friday.

"We are able to change our instructional model at any time as local conditions warrant," the school board said in the statement. "We will remain flexible and adaptable."

Dr. Steven Paynter, president of the Whitfield/Murray County Medical Society, and Dr. Zachary Taylor, director of the North Georgia Health District, wrote an opinion for the Daily-Citizen News in Dalton urging people to get tested if they have symptoms, continue to wear a mask and practice social distancing whenever possible.

Free COVID-19 testing will be available Saturday by the Whitfield County Health Department at the Mack Gaston Community Center in Dalton. Testing will be available from 8 a.m. to noon, and no appointment is necessary.

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