If the current downward trend of confirmed COVID-19 cases continues, students in the Fulton County Schools System could fully return to face-to-face instruction on Oct. 14, Superintendent Mike Looney told the FCS Board of Education during its Sept. 8 meeting. Remote learning would remain an option for at least the current semester.

Since the public health data has been improving, Looney said, the district plans to skip Phase 2 of the reopening plan and go directly to Phase 3 for most students on Sept. 21. In Phase 3, all students would attend in-person classes one day per week and continue remote learning on the other four weekdays.

Looney said Sept. 21 was chosen to give extra time to take into account a possible uptick in cases stemming from the Labor Day holiday.

FCS moved to Phase 1 on Sept. 8, which brings pre-K through second-grade students to the schools for 90 minutes on one day of the week in two sessions.

Special education students attend in-person one day per week for 180 minutes. Looney said students with “low-incidence special education service needs” will go on an advanced return to school, moving to Phase 4 on Sept. 21, bringing them in two full days per week when other students will be attending one day per week. The special education students are expected to resume full-time face-to-face instruction on Oct. 5.

The specific days of attendance in Phases 3 and 4 will be based on the family’s last name, “so siblings will be going on the same days,” Looney said.

Everyone in the school buildings, including students, will be required to wear masks as long as the CDC and Fulton County Health Department continue to include it on their guidelines.

School board member Linda McCain asked if parents need to notify schools if they will be attending in person, and how they would do that.

Looney said they are developing a plan that will be submitted to parents on how they would follow the new process. He said he expects all students participating in face-to-face instruction in Phase 1 will continue in Phase 3.

“We recognize there will be some that opt to choose universal remote learning,” he said. “This return to face-to-face instruction is optional at this point.”

School board member Katie Reeves said she’s heard from many teachers and some parents questioning their ability to teach students both remotely and in person at the same time. She cited an example of a student asking a question in the classroom, which would require the teacher to repeat the question so the remote students could hear it.

“That is a legitimate concern. We share that concern with our teachers and parents,” Looney said.

He said that problem is one of the reasons the return of students is being done slowly, with 25% attending at first, and then 50%. He said the district needs the time to build the scheme to make it work.

The uncertainty had Looney telling the school board the administration does not want to let any teachers or staff go right away no matter the attendance numbers. The current enrollment of approximately 90,000 students is about 3,000 below last year’s enrollment.

“That could potentially be a problem if we let people go,” McCain said.

Students will not be allowed to shift back and forth between remote learning and face-to-face instruction, Looney said. The school system will be asking for a commitment from parents about their children’s attendance.

“You are not going to be able to stay at home one day and in class at the same time,” Looney said.

The deadline for that commitment will be announced soon, he said.

Stuart said she has heard from some parents who plan to enroll their children in FCS once face-to-face instruction resumes.

School board member Gail Dean asked Looney if he had plans to go past the first semester with remote learning and face-to-face instruction.

“I would be hesitant to commit to anything at this point,” Looney said, noting that the situation with the coronavirus changes daily.

Once the district enters Phase 3 of its reopening plan, it will be able to move more nimbly if confirmed cases are found in teachers or students, Looney said. If a single student tests positive, that student would be required to self-quarantine. Any other student, teacher or staff member who had contact with the student for at least 15 minutes within 6 feet, with or without a mask, also would be required to self-quarantine. Contact tracing would be done to make sure anyone who had contact with the student was isolated.

That may allow the school system to only shut down a single class, instead of a school or the entire district.

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.