Earlier the plan had been to offer options of either online classes or traditional face-to-face classrooms.
Here is the statement Ragsdale made at the work session. We will follow up in further articles with the reactions to his statement:
The next thing that I want to do is talk about the school year. I'm actually announcing today that we will be starting the school year on August the 17th. And we will be doing that virtually. This is not to say that we are going to do virtual for the entire year. It's not to say that we're going to do virtual for the first semester it's not to say we're going to do virtual for any specified amount of time. However, it is to say that we will be here, starting the school year, on August 17, in a virtual environment, this decision has has been weighing on me for awhile. I know we need to get back to school into face-to-face instruction. That's why we were originally trying to offer two options in order to try and accommodate everyone. Our teachers are awesome. And they have done and will continue to do an awesome job virtually. But nothing takes the place of students in a Cobb County School District classroom, learning from the awesome Cobb County School District teachers that we have. I realized that that misinformation has been very abundant due to whatever source and I know that everyone has been asking for and looking for answers. And answers that we could quite honestly not provide because we didn't have any more information than the people asking the questions did: Should we require masks? Can we require masks? What happens if students or staff doesn't wear a mask if we do require them? What will happen if ... ? What will happen when ... ? How will we know it's safe? Let me just give you an example that I that I have used in some situations ... We have a classroom, and we have 1, 2, 3 students that come up positive for COVID-19. What does that look like? Well, the contact tracing is incumbent upon us to conduct and then we need to provide that information to the Department of Public Health. Then students or staff that are identified in that high risk category, which is directed by the Department of Public Health will be out for 14 days. Well, then the question is, what requirements are there for them to come back? Is 14 days enough? Is a negative test required to return? How long is the delay in testing because that is what we're seeing now is testing is being delayed, which then results in the results of the test being delayed. So there's a lot of things that are impacting this decision that I'm announcing today. As late as this morning, I received updated data from Dr. Janet Memark and I cannot thank her enough for the multiple conversations we have been having that have been ongoing, multiple conversations during each day as a matter of fact, but according to the data that she has, we are in high transmission. And the guidance that has been put out by the DOE, by the state, indicates different things for the different levels of spread that we find ourselves in, whether it's low spread, medium to moderate spread or high spread, and we are in that high spread or high transmission section right now. And we as an organization cannot add to the transmission rate increasing. In other words, when we bring 113,000 students back, however many of those we're going to choose to come back face to face, we bring 18,000 employees back, whomever of those would be on site, we cannot afford to add to that transmission rate, continuing at that high level, we have to do everything we can to reduce that rate. And so right now, the data just very simply does not support opening in our currently proposed format. Now again, I'm not giving a specific time frame that we will be conducting virtual for 100% of the operation. We will continue to watch the data, we will continue to analyze the data and we will continue to work with Dr. Memark and in her relationship with the state. So, we want to get face to face instruction open as soon as humanly possible. But we also want to make this decision today that I'm announcing sooner rather than later. I hate to compare it to a snow day because it's so much more serious than a snow day. But as far as getting the information to our parents and staff and students as soon as possible, that is comparative to when we have a snow day. We try to make the decision the day before to make sure we can give parents that ample time to prepare and plan for the next day when their students are going to be out of school. It's just a few days more than four weeks prior to the start of school. We are still going to bring back our teachers on July 27. Because that delayed start of school for students gave us more time to prepare. And now that we're making this decision and announcement, it gives us that precious time that we need to make sure that we get the proper training, the proper planning and the proper preparation time for all of our teachers to be able to conduct teaching and learning virtual. Now let me speak to to our priorities. We have always said and we will continue to say and we will continue to place the health and safety of our students and staff as our top priority. Our teachers cannot teach in an environment in which they do not feel safe. Our students cannot learn in an environment in which they do not feel safe. This decision was not made on a knee jerk whim. It was not made without taking serious consideration into what the outcomes of this decision would be. But I've been receiving the data that was indicating this decision was going to become inevitable. I want to speak to our team members right now: teachers, parapros, bus drivers, principals, assistant principals, clerks, secretaries and all other employees that have sent me emails. Do not think that that those emails have gone unread. Do not think that I don't hear your thoughts, your prayers, your suggestions, your concerns, and your fears. I hear you. Our team members matter to me when we make decisions. That's the first priority that we have is what is the impact going to be on our team members, your health and safety. As I've said, they matter to me. They're our top priority as we go into this next academic year that we're facing. And I realize with 18,000 employees, everyone is not going to like everything I do. Some will not like anything I do, and that's okay. You're still a team member, and you still matter. Your health and safety, still matter and is still the top priority. Regardless, I realize whatever decisions are made, they will not please everyone, students, staff, parents. I'm not saying again, that this decision was taken lightly. There was a lot of data that went into this decision. And I know that that data is going to continue to change. But what we are seeing is a delay in being able to get accurate data, which is brought about by the delay in testing, which brings about the delay in results. And then we're also starting to see,perhaps, the virus is actually positive, much longer than the 14 day period that is now being identified as sometimes 20 or 30 days. So there was a lot of unknowns. Honestly, the bottom line question that had to be answered was, can we ensure we can open school in a face to face instructional environment and ensure a safe environment for our teachers, for our other employees and for our students? And we just could not make that assurance. We could not make that statement. We will continue to communicate as we receive updated data. And we want to open face to face instruction just as soon as we possibly can, but we have to make sure that it will be safe to resume. Now there will be many, many dominoes that have to fall after this. Athletics: We are not postponing or canceling athletics. We will be following what the GHSA is is providing guidance on, we will be continuing to make those decisions based on that guidance but right now we are not canceling any sports. Now, everything related to school will be suspended and what I mean by that is after-school clubs, whatever those might be, after-school programs, the ASP those will be suspended until we are back in face to face, instructional environment and we will make those decisions as we get closer to that opening date. Now, one of the things that that has been brought up, and we have been planning for, since we closed on Friday the 13th back in March, and that is devices. We understand that there are many families out there that are in need of devices, whether it be a single child household, and you just simply do not have a device that will provide the proper access for obtaining the teaching and learning virtually, or whether it's a household with multiple students and you only have one device or you don't have enough devices. So that being said, our plan has already been in place and we've been planning on this. We literally have tens of thousands of devices identified that we will be making available to those students in need. As you have seen on the portal registration, the intent there (we had a hiccup and we got that fixed immediately) was to be able to provide us with hard data on those students wanting to do virtual but needing a device. I'm going to ask you to still go on the portal and do that registration so that we can get some more accurate data from the families and students. And then we will be conducting that process through your local school. We will be communicating the details of that. First through our schools, our technology department will have to make ready the devices to make sure that we have the proper number. They've already started that process as a matter of fact, but we just have to make sure that we have the proper setup on those devices for students to utilize at home. Now, again, as I told the MDJ after the commissioners meeting, I cannot say that we can provide a device for every student, because we simply don't have 113,000 devices. And we can't afford 113,000 devices. But what I can say is I am very confident that we can provide devices for those families in need, and those two situations I just described. So that being said, we will be communicating there. I have not communicated to staff about this decision. This decision is the first, or today rather, is the first announcement that we're making. Again, I just wanted to make sure that I had the latest possible data in my hands to discuss properly as we make this announcement. Now, today, we will be presenting the tentative budget for your approval. In that budget we have a line item as I alluded to in the commissioners meeting, but did not go into detail because it was inappropriate before we present this budget today to the board. There is a line item that is (to) set aside funds for COVID-19 expenditures such as people, resources, products, processes, etc. The original (and I'll just go ahead and say this), the original number that we placed on that line item that you have in your budget notebook today was $10 million. I'm going to be, during the presentation, obviously making it now, but I'm going to be asking the board to change that line item to be $15 million. because I believe that as we start the school year virtually, we know that we will be coming back to face-to-face instruction at some point in time. So we still need to make sure we have the proper processes and equipment in place to ensure the safe environment for our teachers and our students and our other staff members, and parents that are coming into the schools as well. We need to make sure of that. We also need to make sure that we have set aside some funds for devices. I know that the Cobb Schools Foundation made an additional purchase just this week, they received an additional $100,000. So that's tremendous that we're getting those donations from the business community so that the foundation can play its part in helping us get through this start of the academic year of when we're going to be virtual. But it's also incumbent upon us to make sure that we are setting aside funds to provide for those devices as well. The state has also communicated to school districts and superintendents that they will be assisting with the provision of some access points for those families and households in need of WIFI or internet access. And like I said before, I know that other providers, companies, are also making those provisions at a much reduced price so that families can be able to take advantage of those greatly reduced prices for that access. We're going to have to truly, you know, come together. You know, I've spoken to several superintendents, and obviously we had the AJC panel last night. You know, we are all doing everything that we possibly can to make sure that we are providing the best teaching and learning environment while also maintaining the health and safety of our employees and students as a top priority. And that is no small task. As I indicated with the example of the positive case in the classroom, quite honestly, once you are not able to check the box of safety and health for our teachers and our students, there are many other boxes that you just quite honestly could not check that would be accomplished with face-to-face instruction. One of those examples utilizes what gave you as an example of the positive case. Quite honestly, the contact tracing is so complex and so inundated of time and effort, I'm afraid we would find our employees, especially teachers, doing more contact tracing than teaching. And our sole reason for existing is to provide great teaching and learning for our teachers and our students. And if that's not going to be capable of being done, we need to make sure we're providing the environment in which that can be done. So again,to close with, I know there will be additional questions and we will be working to communicate answers to those. I want to say again, that all the staff members that have emailed me, those emails have been read and taken into consideration for this decision. The health and safety, I cannot say enough, of our teachers, staff and students is the absolute top priority of this organization. It always has been. But in this era that we're in right now, in a pandemic, it takes on a totally different meaning. I know there was some great concern from employees about where they would be able to virtually teach from. Would they be required to come into the building? Would they be able to do that remotely? When we were under the two options of face-to-face and virtual, that was going to be a totally different environment. And no, those teachers were not going to be required to be in the building. That would have defeated the purpose of having that virtual option in the first place for our employees as well as our students. Now that we're going to start virtually on August 17, we're going to be reworking that plan so that we can identify exactly those teachers that need to be in the school. And we can identify those that have either an immunocompromised family member at home, (or) they themselves are immunocompromised But we will be working that plan to make sure that we provide the best and safe accommodations that we can for our employees. Obviously, students will be 100 percent remote and they will not be on site. So as we move through this next phase, as I've already mentioned, we will still be starting pre-planning on July 27. For our teachers, we are already in the process of creating specific training to make sure that our teachers have access and know how to access the appropriate resources that our CTLS system will be providing. And we will be doing additional trainings in that regard. So again, I know that this decision has been weighing on me for quite some time. And while we tried to be as upfront and transparent with our communications as we can, there was just data that we were receiving that was not able to be communicated publicly. Today, I really stand shoulder to shoulder with Dr. Memark, and I appreciate her support, her candor in providing us, the health officials, experts and expertise, the expert opinion and expertise that she's been providing with her staff and in coordination with the state that she will be able to continue to provide us with. So, that being said, I know that this decision will make some people happy. It will make some people angry. With it will come frustration ... but we will continue to communicate as much data as we possibly can as soon as we have it and are able to communicate that data. So, Mr. Chair, with that, that concludes my remarks.