CUMMING, Ga. — Students at one metro school will be met with plexiglass partitions in their classrooms when they head back to school this coming year.
Pinecrest Academy says it will use a new online tool to help school leaders track COVID-19 infections — and take the appropriate steps to keep students and teachers safe.
School officials told Channel 2′s Michael Seiden that their decision to start the new school year with in-person classes has actually attracted new students.
Dianne Patota is the proud parent of a Pinecrest academy student. She says despite the pandemic, she isn't concerned about sending her daughter, Kate, a rising sophomore and member of the school cheerleading team, back to school.
“She’s on a countdown. Even last week she said, ‘Next week I can say that, next week we go back to school.’ So she’s really excited,” Patota said about her daughter. “I’m very comfortable sending her back to school. I feel that the COVID task force and executive team at Pinecrest has absolutely done everything possible to keep the safety and health of our kids in mind.”
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Pinecrest Academy, a private catholic school in Cumming that serves grades Pre-K through 12, is scheduled to begin in-person classes on Aug. 6 for high schoolers and Aug. 10 for other students.
Charlene Dougal is the school's assistant headmaster. She also serves as the head of Pinecrest's COVID-19 task force.
"For us, we know what we do best is when we are in person," Dougal said.
Dougal and her task force, which is made up of teachers, pediatricians, infectious disease specialists and business owners, started working on a plan in May to figure out how to get their doors open again for this upcoming school year.
"We have three courses of action we're looking at: red, yellow and green," Dougal said.
Each color indicates safety measures for different scenarios.
Pinecrest academy plans to start the year in yellow, which means in-person learning will happen with safety measures like daily temperature checks and health questions.
Among the biggest challenges will be how to maintain social distancing, which is currently one of the guidelines from the state health department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“In every classroom you’ll either see the desks spaced apart, or if we can’t stay so fully apart, there’ll be a partition separating them. There’ll be teachers or children in masks. And then each teacher will have a partition in front of their desks, or in front of their teaching station,” Dougal said.
But what if a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19? What if there's a major outbreak? Will school leaders reverse course and head back to online learning? How will they handle contact tracing?
The task force took those concerns to IPC Global, an Alpharetta- based company that specializes in data and analytics.
“What we’re trying to do here is put out a little fire so when they pop up, we follow the procedure, we stomp them out and we move on,” said Mark Meersman with IPC Global.
Meersman and his team have been developing a campus health tracker which he says could be the decisive factor between in class instruction and online learning.
"We can identify, rapidly communicate to leadership and then ultimately figure out the folks that are within one, two degrees of separation from a given COVID case," Meersman said.
This is how the campus health tracker works. When a student isn't feeling well, he or she heads to the school clinic where a nurse assesses the situation.
"The child will be sent home from campus for a period of time until they get a release," Dougal said.
As the student awaits results, school officials are already taking action.
"We'll communicate immediately to the parents and to the guardians responsible and we'll communicate to the teachers," Dougal said.
In the meantime, the tracker will show the amount of suspected and positive COVID cases.
School leaders are now able to use the data when making decisions, especially when it comes to additional safety measures and online learning.
"we're able to see the classes that were directly affected. And those in red, we are suggesting virtual classes," Dougal said. "We're able to quickly see the activities that those students were involved in beyond the classroom."
As hundreds of students and faculty prepare to head back to the classroom, leaders at Pinecrest Academy say they're hoping for a smooth school year
"We're not thinking we'll never get a case," Dougal said.
That's why they want to make sure they're prepared for anything.
“It helps us make smart decisions. It helps keep our kids in school. It helps show the Department of Health that we’re being responsible. We are reacting properly, and we have protocols to handle it,” Dougal said.
School officials told Seiden that despite the new safety measures, about 10% of parents have concerns about in-class learning.
The task force is working on a plan for those students, which will most likely include some type of virtual learning.
To see a demonstration of the campus health tracker, Click Play on the video below.