BUFORD — Nothing about 2020 has been normal and the same goes for kids starting back to school.  When the nation shut down in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, so did schools.  Digital learning became the new normal.  A new normal that many children and families struggled to flourish in.

In the classrooms, clear plastic dividers have been placed in between each student’s desk. Photo – Alicia Couch Payne

When the previous school year officially ended in May, everyone was optimistic about being able to have a normal start to the new school year.  However, that was not to be as new positive cases of Covid-19 began to rise once again.  Suddenly school districts were reevaluating their plans to return to school.  Plans have changed multiple times as the pandemic situation continues to evolve and new guidelines are sent out to the schools.

No visitors will be allowed in the schools this year and interaction between parents and staff will take place through these newly installed windows at the front office. Photo – Alicia Couch Payne

How back to school this year is supposed to go has been one of the most hotly debated topics in recent years.  At first, most school districts were offering families the choice of sending their kids back to school for in-person learning or they could enroll in the district’s digital learning option.  As the number of positive cases had not yet declined, many districts decided to cancel in-person learning and start the year in a fully digital learning mode.

A few school districts like Buford City Schools have kept the meat of their plan which is to offer both in-person and online learning but with a few adjustments.  During the digital learning sign up period, only 18% of the students at Buford signed up for the digital learning option.  Following several parental surveys, it was clear that Buford families were ready to get back to in-person learning.  Buford students will return to school whether in-person or digitally on Wednesday, August 12.

The school system led by Superintendent Dr. Robert Downs has worked tirelessly all summer to get the school system ready to resume learning whether it be in-person or online.  BCS purchased new software in February that is the key to this year’s success.  It is a centralized tool for teachers to put their lesson plans in one place for both in-person and digital learning.  The school system also purchased enough Chromebook laptops for every student in the district use during the year which will eliminate technology gaps for underprivileged students.

Teachers also have the clear plastic barriers in place at their desks and other work areas. Photo – Alicia Couch Payne

“Our teachers have done a phenomenal job at learning the new system and getting the content loaded into the system,” said Dr. Downs. “Many of our teachers came in over the summer on their own time which shows their dedication and love for our students.”

District staff have spent ten to twelve hour days during the summer pouring over the guidelines and recommendations from the Department of Health and coming up with a plan for getting their students back to in-person learning.  The administration held virtual “Town Hall” meetings with both parents and teachers.  Their concerns and ideas were noted and taken into consideration.  

It is clear that Buford teachers and staff love their students like this sign that greets the students as they enter Buford Elementary School. Photo – Alicia Couch Payne

Buford Elementary School Principal Mark Graves said that his staff has put in long days and long nights to think of every possible thing that could go wrong and coming up with ways to counter them.  The North Gwinnett Voice was given a tour of the elementary school to see the ways that the school intends to minimize risks to their students.  

One particular point came up numerous times and is one of the pillars of the school system’s plans to deal with Covid-19.  That point is to limit the number of people that each person that is at the Buford City Schools comes into contact with.  This all goes back to being able to effectively perform contact tracing should an infection occur.  

Teachers’ works of art line the halls at BES welcoming the students back. Photo – Alicia Couch Payne

These plans all start before the children enter the school’s doors.  On buses, students will be assigned seats with other family members or other students from their same bus stop.  Masks are mandatory on the buses at all times.  The buses also have air filters as part of their air conditioning systems that can help filter some of the germs.

Teachers’ works of art line the halls at BES welcoming the students back. Photo – Alicia Couch Payne

Upon entering the school, students are kept with their same class all day and must adhere to social distancing practices and wear masks for the majority of the day.  The school will begin training their students from the first day about social distancing and the new procedures in place to combat the pandemic.  Signage will be in place throughout the schools reminding students of the procedures as well.

Arrows mark the floors around the schools in order to keep students moving in the correct direction so there’s less of a chance for students to come face to face.  Social distancing is required while walking or standing in lines.  In the cafeteria, for instance, there will be signs on the floor which marks out the correct distance for each child to stand while waiting to receive their meal. 

Teachers’ works of art line the halls at BES welcoming the students back. Photo – Alicia Couch Payne

In the cafeteria, numerous changes have been made to better accommodate social distancing and to lessen the number of people that will come into contact with each student’s food. Students at the elementary school will eat lunch in their classrooms each day.  BES cafeteria manager Jessica Martin went over those changes. Their meals will be served in containers similar to those one would get take out from restaurants. The food will all be portioned out ahead of time and far fewer portions will be on each tray for the students to grab to cut down on the chance that students might touch food that is not theirs.  

Teachers’ works of art line the halls at BES welcoming the students back. Photo – Alicia Couch Payne

Classrooms all have clear plastic dividers in between each student’s seat.  Students will be wearing masks for their time in the classrooms and will be kept at their desks to minimize contact with others.  Teachers have been given additional resources and supplies to help minimize risks.  

Hand sanitizing stations have been set up all throughout the schools.  The school nurses have been given additional resources including an isolation area to keep any child who gets sick while at school quarantined away from other children.  The school system has purchased more than their fair share of forehead thermometers in which to check students’ temperatures when needed.  

Dr. Downs praised the support and generosity of the Board of Education and the City Commission for getting them all of the new equipment, supplies, and staffing necessary to operate safely during this pandemic.  “They have yet to turn down one of our requests,” said Dr. Downs. “They have been beyond generous and we are grateful for their support.”

Teachers’ works of art line the halls at BES welcoming the students back. Photo – Alicia Couch Payne

The teachers at BES and the other Buford City Schools are just truly excited to welcome the students back come Wednesday.  Each teacher at BES created their own piece of art that will greet the students in the halls.  The messages contained in the works of art are encouraging and uplifting.  Messages range from “Have courage and be kind” to “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.” 

Teachers’ works of art line the halls at BES welcoming the students back. Photo – Alicia Couch Payne

“I am looking forward to seeing the students again.  I had the opportunity to see some of the students during open house and you could see their excitement, their smiles,” BCS Assistant Superintendent Melanie Reed related. “People commented that you can’t see their smiles through the masks. I said ‘Oh yes you can, you can see their smiles through their eyes.’  We call it ‘smizing’”

Each school’s plans vary to suit the nature of their needs but their plans are well thought out. Dr. Downs along with the principals emphasize that their plans may change depending on new information from the state and through observations obtained from the first few days of school.  The one thing each staff member at Buford City Schools has in common is that they love their students and will do everything they can to have and to keep happy, healthy, and well-educated students.

Buford City Schools are ready to “Return to Learn.”

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