Cobb County School District’s middle and high schools are set to reopen as scheduled over the next three weeks, according to the district’s chief executive.

In a Friday interview with the MDJ, Cobb Superintendent Chris Ragsdale said middle schools will reopen for the option of face-to-face classes beginning Monday, and he expects high schools to be able to reopen on Nov. 5, the Thursday after Election Day. The reopenings come as the number of new COVID-19 cases reported in Cobb County are ticking up in the last week.

“Right now, we’re set to go for Monday with middle school, and then obviously we hope to see those cases continue to trend downward and stay low,” Ragsdale said. “I have the utmost confidence that the citizens of Cobb County will continue to do everything we can to make sure that we stay in that situation.”

This week, Cobb County saw a small increase in new COVID-19 cases following a plateau. On Wednesday, the Georgia Department of Public Health confirmed 137 cases of COVID-19 in Cobb County, the highest one-day total in the county since 157 on Sept. 12. On Thursday, the Cobb County government urged residents to wear masks, wash their hands and practice social distancing.

“Cobb’s COVID-19 cases have increased in recent days following a post-Labor Day plateau,” the county government said in a social media post.

Throughout the discussion about reopening schools, Ragsdale has pointed to the number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people as a key metric. As of Friday afternoon, Cobb reported 122 cases per 100,000 people over the last two weeks, according to data from the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Ragsdale trusts the county community, saying residents have taken the necessary steps to reduce community spread of COVID-19 and create a safe environment for students and staff members to return to classrooms.

“At this point in time, with it being literally three days from now, there’s not going to be a delay,” Ragsdale said of reopening middle schools. “While we have seen the numbers bump up a little bit, the cases per 100,000, I think that Cobb Countians have been awesome in our endeavor and our diligence in doing what we need to do to make sure that we can get back to some sense of normalcy.”

So what could cause a potential delay in reopening or a return to online-only learning, an option any Cobb parent still has should they choose it. Ragsdale said an extreme spike in new cases is likely the only thing that could throw a wrench in the district’s phased reopening plan, but he doesn’t expect that to happen in Cobb.

“I truly believe that everyone is continuing to do their part and we will see high school students coming back,” Ragsdale said. "And we will see all levels, once we get back to face-to-face, remain in face-to-face as an option. And hopefully with the presence of a vaccine and the longer we go down this path toward the end of the timeline for the virus, we will see a lot more things going back to normal.”

Elementary school students had the option of returning to face-to-face classes beginning Oct. 5, and the superintendent says in-person learning has gone well thus far.

“I think everybody is just glad to have that face-to-face as an option," Ragsdale said. “I can’t say enough about my appreciation for our teachers and the great job that they're doing in this difficult time.”

Students set to return

According to data from the Cobb School District, more than 14,000 middle school students, or about 59%, are expected to return to school Monday for face-to-face learning. More than 9,800 middle school students, about 35%, are expected to continue remote learning. The remaining 6% of students did not respond by the district’s deadline, and it is unclear which option they will take.

When face-to-face students return to classrooms, they will notice some changes compared to the spring. Masks are required, social distancing of 6 feet will be practiced whenever possible, and teachers will be leading both online and in-person instruction concurrently. Exact virus mitigation practices will vary by school, Ragsdale said, because principals have some autonomy on their campuses.

“Depending on how many students are actually showing up for face-to-face in a school, that obviously helps to determine what you can and can’t do as a practice,” the superintendent said. “A lot of principals are doing things above and beyond because of the numbers of students they have.”

While some students will return to classrooms, others will continue learning in a remote setting. According to Ragsdale, the district has distributed over 37,000 devices — Chromebooks and other computers — to students in need since the summer, and about 2,800 devices are ready to be picked up by students who requested them.

“Right now, we’re at 100% as far as filling all the requested devices that we have received,” Ragsdale said.

Ragsdale said schools are working to ensure students are getting the instructional time they need.

“The schools have teams that are reaching out to students and families when they’re not being engaged face-to-face or remotely,” he said. “Every school is doing something differently and truly going above and beyond to make sure that we’re engaging all families.”

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