The three Cherokee County high schools closed this month because of COVID-19 outbreaks may reopen on a hybrid schedule, Superintendent Brian Hightower said Thursday night.

Hightower unveiled the possibility at the board of education meeting.

The three high schools are all tentatively scheduled to reopen on Aug. 31. Hightower said that he and his staff are considering a change where students would attend in-person classes on a staggered schedule two days per week and on other days learn online at home. Etowah and Woodstock high schools closed on consecutive days last week, followed by Creekview on Monday.

“We are looking at a hybrid model. Ultimately with a hybrid you do split the kids in half so that immediately you have social distancing in your classroom,” Hightower said.

Without the hybrid model, students would be going back into into the same situation in which the schools had to close in the second week of the school year, Hightower said. “If you keep doing what you’re doing and expect a different result, that’s pretty inefficient and ineffective,” he said.

A team from Cherokee County schools will be visiting Paulding County on Monday to see in person how the hybrid model is working in schools there. Hightower did not say when a definite decision would be announced on using the hybrid schedule at the schools.

If the hybrid schedule is implemented, Hightower said he would intend it to be temporary and used only as long as needed to prevent further outbreaks of COVID-19. He said five days of in-person learning is best, but “two days is better than no days.”

Cherokee, River Ridge and Sequoyah high schools remain open. COVID-19 cases at Cherokee have fallen, chief of staff Mike McGowan said. River Ridge and Sequoyah have had few cases of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, families served by Cherokee County School District were given the choice before school started Aug. 3 to send their children to schools for in-person instruction, or start the year online. Almost a quarter of students were signed up for the online option. The system serves more than 42,000 students total.

Cherokee County schools and other systems across the state closed campuses and instituted online learning in March in response to the pandemic.

In-person school was the overwhelmingly popular choice among Cherokee County parents surveyed after the conclusion of last school year and school board members in July endorsed a plan to reopen school campuses with procedures designed to prevent the spread of coronavirus in place.

The system’s response plan for COVID-19 includes options to close individual classrooms, whole wings of schools, entire schools, school zones and the entire system if needed.

School board member Mike Chapman on Thursday made a motion to allow the superintendent the flexibility to make changes to the reopening plan such as hybrid schedules in some schools, but not to require that students wear masks without approval of the school board.

Many in the community have said students should be required to wear masks to prevent spread of the disease, while others have argued against it. The official policy of the system has been to require staff to wear masks when they cannot be at least six feet from others and to strongly encourage the same for students without requiring them to.

“I know that we have to pivot and it is the right time to begin discussing those. In terms of giving Dr. Hightower the flexibility to implement those, I’m in favor of that,” board member Clark Menard said. He asked Chapman to explain why his motion excluded the flexibility for the superintendent to mandate masks.

Chapman said that because mask use has caused so much debate in the community that if a mask mandate for students is proposed, board members should vote on it.

The motion was approved 5-1.main story

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Managing Editor

Gary Tanner is managing editor of The Cherokee Tribune, Cherokee Ledger-News and Cherokee Life magazine. He has been working as a journalist since 1985.

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