Hightower

Cherokee County School District Superintendent Brian Hightower speaks to the Rotary Club of Canton Tuesday.

There isn’t a specific number of COVID-19 cases in Cherokee County School District schools that will prompt decisions on whether to close a class or school, Superintendent Brian Hightower said Tuesday.

Instead, the district looks at several factors when determining its pandemic response, the superintendent told the Tribune after speaking to the Rotary Club of Canton Tuesday. Those factors include case numbers, watching for clusters at individual schools, staffing, local COVID-19 hospitalizations, and guidance from the Georgia Department of Public Health.

“It’s really just communicating between agencies, the DPH, the hospital, us, the board,” he said.

Case clusters are when “numerous students and/or staff test positive in one classroom or other contained group at the same time,” CCSD spokeswoman Barbara Jacoby said in an email Wednesday.

So far, the only closure this school year due to a COVID-19 case cluster was one Arnold Mill Elementary School fourth grade classroom Aug. 10, Jacoby said. All students in the class are learning remotely and will be cleared to return to school Monday.

In January, CCSD closed schools and went virtual for eight school days due to COVID-19 related staffing shortages.

As for staffing, “we hope that the high rate of vaccinations among our teachers and staff and our efforts to further increase our substitute teacher pool will prevent closures due to that reason,” Jacoby said.

The district has a pool of 600 trained substitute teachers, and held a hiring event last week. CCSD expects to add 80 more by the end of this week, Jacoby said, and is continuously reviewing applications and training for new substitutes.

Even amid the challenges of another pandemic school year, CCSD has continued to roll out new programs and opportunities, Hightower told the members and visitors to the Rotary club.

“Every day is a new challenge for us,” he said. “But I can tell you that we’re being as thoughtful, and as proactive as we possibly can in the environment.”

Hightower thanked Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey for “flexibility” on contact tracing and precautionary quarantines. State officials have allowed school districts to set their own rules this year, but still advise they follow CDC guidelines. Rather than issuing quarantines to close contacts, this year when a student or employee tests positive for COVID-19, CCSD is notifying affected staff and sending emails to parents of students in affected classes.

CCSD leads the metro Atlanta area in Advanced Placement test scores, and 80% of its high school students have declared they plan to attend college or university, Hightower told the club.

The district’s College and Career Academy launched a new career pathway, cybersecurity, the superintendent said, and Woodstock High School has added fire safety as a career pathway.

CCSD’s i-Grad Virtual Academy also launched this school year and has about 130 students, Hightower said, bringing a permanent virtual learning platform to the district. The virtual academy is different from the district’s digital learning option offered this year, which saw a reported 751 students log on the first day of school.

“Together, we can do this thing,” he said. “The pandemic will come and go, but I believe that our school system, we’re setting it up, we believe, with platforms that will take us what I had hoped to see was into the (50,000s). And then ultimately to the 60s and the 70s.

Growth in the district has slowed in recent years, Hightower said, after rapid growth that one year saw as many as 2,000 new students.

“At one point, they were saying, by 2040, we would probably be at about 70,000 kids. I think that’s probably that that paradigm has shifted a little bit,” he said. “We’re okay with that, as far as trying to get through the debt that we incurred in the early 2000s to build so many schools. In a 15-year span, we built 19 schools or had major renovations.”

The district’s replacement Cherokee High School campus is planned to have a capacity of about 3,000 students, Hightower said. Cherokee is the district’s oldest high school, and reported enrollment at 2,799 this spring.

At Creekview High School and Creekland Middle School, the district may add wings to the facilities to keep up with growth rather than build new schools, the superintendent said.

“We believe that we’ll continue to thrive as a district,” he said.

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