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Jefferson City Schools reopening ‘experiment’ is underway

Early Friday morning, Nereida Jaimes, carrying her youngest child, opened her front door to walk her two older children to the school bus, a familiar ritual during the school year. However, only one of them, wearing a mask, got on the bus this time — the other was too scared to go back to school.

“I don’t’ want to go because I’m scared of getting it,” said Jaimes’ eighth-grade daughter.

Schools in Jefferson, Georgia, welcomed students back into the classroom Friday — the first in the state to reopen for in-person learning. The four schools in the district, which are among the top-ranked in the state, have approximately 4,000 students enrolled in PK-12.

On this first day of school, elementary school children were seen holding their parents’ hands. Teachers waited for kids being dropped off. High school students greeted each other with hugs.

Indeed, at the high school many of the students were wearing masks, but just as many if not more were not wearing face coverings.

At the elementary school, most students seemed to enter the building with masks — but not all.

“I know that there are guidelines for children’s safety, but still, as a parent you’re always concerned about your children, but we hope in God that everything will be alright,” said Jaimes. She is now looking into whether she can still register her eighth-grade daughter for virtual learning.

The school system is allowing students to continue learning from home, and 5% have enrolled in virtual learning, according to Jefferson City Schools Superintendent Donna R. McMullan.

Yolanda Payne, whose son is in the fourth grade, chose to continue remote learning. Payne lost her father to Covid-19 in May. “This thing is real. This is right here,” said Payne. The loss was a major factor in her decision.

“He’s going to be virtual because he’s asthmatic, and I can’t take that risk. That’s already an issue, an underlying condition. I can’t take the risk of sending him back to school and getting Covid. It’s just not worth it to me,” said Payne.

On Thursday, Yolanda went by the Board of Education to pick up a laptop for her nine-year-old son.

Jefferson City Schools say they’ll implement the “Covid-19 Operational Guidelines” they’ve created in compliance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Georgia Department of Public Health, and Georgia Department of Education recommendations.

Random temperature checks may be conducted, though students are expected to check their temperatures before going to school and stay home if they have a fever or are experiencing any Covid-19 symptoms.

Schools will maintain social distancing “when feasible,” and mealtimes will be coordinated to minimize the number of students in the cafeteria and allow for extra cleaning. Face masks are strongly encouraged, but not mandatory.

“It’s scary because we don’t know who’s going to wear one and who’s not. Someone could have it and not know and be asymptomatic and still spread it and not wear a mask. There’s still so much unknown,” said Hope Terhune, a 12th-grade student at Jefferson High School. Terhune and classmate Rylee Meadows started a petition for the Board of Education to mandate masks.

But an opposing petition was started soon after, asking that students be given the choice to wear a mask, or not. “I wanted to show the Board of Education, since they saw the other petition, that not everyone felt that way; that there were still people that thought we should have the choice,” said Brett Kelley, a 10th-grade student at Jefferson High School.

“As a teacher, as a parent, as a current educator, I cannot imagine how everyone is feeling knowing that they have to go back into buildings,” said Payne. “They don’t want to be sick. They don’t want the kids to be sick, but at the same time they want to do what’s best for the children, and right now nobody really knows what that is,” said Payne.

“The bottom line is, there’s other things out there that are more dangerous. This has been so politicized, I don’t think we know what to believe,” said Lin Kelley, Brett’s dad.

“I’m really proud of the Jefferson School System, the administrators, the board. There’s a lot of pressure on them, and I think they made a tough decision. I think they made the right decision. Our kids, I think, learn better in person,” added Kelley.

Speaking with American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten on Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that schools will be “part of the experiment” of learning how coronavirus affects children and community spread.

“In many respects, unfortunately, though this may sound a little scary and harsh, I don’t mean it to be that way, is that you’re going to be actually part of the experiment of the learning curve of what we need to know,” said Fauci.

“We don’t have the total database of knowing what there is to expect,” he added.

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