It was no April Fool’s Day joke, but students, parents and employees of Bartow County’s two school systems sure wished it were.
On Wednesday, Gov. Brian Kemp pulled the plug on any hope of reopening Georgia’s schools before the end of the academic year by issuing an executive order mandating that all schools remain closed for the rest of school year and that digital learning continue, leaving seniors to wonder about prom and graduation and other students and teachers without that last-day-of-school closure.
“While it’s disappointing and sad not being able to give our students that high-five or hug as they end the school year, we support the newly issued state guidance and its attempt to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Bartow County Superintendent Dr. Phillip Page said. “I am confident that our system is doing the right work and will come through this challenging time stronger than before because of the creative and alternative ways now being utilized to serve our children. I could not be prouder of this school system and its efforts to create an engaging and fulfilling year from start to finish.”
Cartersville Superintendent Dr. Marc Feuerbach said he has “definitely experienced a wide range of emotions over the past few weeks and especially the past couple of days” regarding the school closure.
“I am saddened that we will not see our students in person again for the rest of the year,” he said. “I am saddened that our students won't get to see their teachers in person again. I'm saddened for the school activities that will be missed out on such as spring sports, spring concerts, awards days, etc. And I'm sad for our seniors, as this is not how they wished for their year to end.”
But despite all the sadness, Feuerbach said he is “choosing to focus on the good.”
“I am proud of how our system has responded and am forever grateful for our teachers, administrators, nutrition staff, central office, maintenance department, technology department, transportation department and all other staff members who basically overnight made sure school continued remotely and that we still fed our students as well,” he said. “I am so proud of how our students and parents have responded as well. We are doing the best we can with the cards we've been dealt, and we will work hard to end this school year on a positive note. Last week, I shared with our teachers, staff and families that we will live in vision and not in circumstance, and our system is fully committed to this.”
After Kemp’s announcement was posted, the school systems’ Facebook pages were flooded with questions and comments about graduations, proms, standardized testing, next year’s pre-K and retrieving students’ personal items from school.
On Friday, Page was able to answer two of those big questions.
“I commend our high school student leadership teams and prom sponsors for the idea of a one-of-a-kind Bartow County School System prom, which is tentatively planned for June 18, 2020, at LakePoint Sports, and graduation to follow in the summer months,” he announced on Facebook.
The prom will be open to all three high schools as long as there are no pending state or local laws barring it, Page said.
“We fully anticipate each of our schools’ prom committees collaborating to decide on a theme and create the best prom experience for our students,” he said.
LakePoint Sports President and CEO Mark O’Brien said the sports complex is “thrilled” to partner with Page and the school system “by hosting and celebrating prom and graduation, which are two of the most monumental events for high school seniors.”
“These are events where lifelong memories are made, and we wanted to ensure that this senior class had those moments to share,” he said in the announcement. “Our teams have been communicating regularly over the past few weeks, and when Dr. Page proposed the idea, LakePoint Sports jumped at the opportunity to help the Bartow County School System and our community. While we continue to monitor the situation, we felt it was important to also provide hope and assurance as we plan for these exciting events on the LakePoint Sports campus."
Specific details about graduation will be forthcoming, as system leaders are working through several contingency plans.
“We are committed to providing a graduation ceremony for our Class of 2020,” Page said. “While we do not know exactly when that will be, our seniors can look forward to a special day that celebrates and honors their academic achievements.”
Feuerbach said he doesn’t yet know what the Cartersville system will do about graduation, as there are still too many unknowns.
“At this point, we have no way of predicting when the number of cases will begin to decrease in Georgia and when the governor will lift restrictions on large gatherings,” he said. “We simply do not have enough information to make any final determination on graduation.”
But system leaders understand the “significance and the profound meaning” that a graduation ceremony has for students and their families, “and it is our hope to offer them the opportunity to honor this special transition in some way,” Feuerbach said.
“We will communicate this information as we have a clearer picture of what we can do,” he said.
Prom and graduations aren’t the only situations that school systems must figure out, but they’re dealing with the ramifications of this unprecedented closure a day at a time.
“This is new territory for us so it's normal to have questions or issues arise that there are not immediate answers to,” Feuerbach said. “School is not over, and we will continue to deliver instruction to the best of our ability. We will continue to check on our students and make sure they are doing well. We will continue to provide meals to our students. School has not stopped, and neither have our operations. We've just had to go about them in a different way. We will continue to navigate these waters one day at a time while trying our best to see what is coming down the road and make the best decisions for our system.”
In addition to prom and graduation, Bartow leaders are discussing “best grading practices for this unique time” as well as making preparations for the 2020-21 school year “through extensive virtual collaboration time,” Page said.
“It’s important to establish the best possible position to serve our students and each other when the next school year starts,” he said.
The superintendents each had a message for members of the Class of 2020 regarding their senior year being cut short and most of their milestone events and activities being canceled.
“I know that it is incredibly difficult to think of missing the milestones and moments you have waited for since you began high school,” Feuerbach said. “While feeling disappointment is normal during this unprecedented moment in history, I encourage you to also remember.
“Remember the friendships you made while at Cartersville High School. Remember the teachers who taught you life lessons far beyond the curriculum. Remember [Principal] Mrs. [Shelley] Tierce's message to always be kind to one another and let it guide your actions every day. Choose to stay focused on the good experiences you had, and know we will continue to love and support you over these last few weeks, even if they are from a distance.”
“We share your sentiments, and we celebrate you and what you’ve accomplished as part of our Bartow County School System family,” Page said. “Like you, we are very disappointed that many of our high school senior events have changed this academic year, but please know we are committed to bringing as many of these activities to you, as best we can, based on [Friday's] events.”
Students in both systems are on spring break this week, which means no digital learning or meal deliveries again until April 13.
Cartersville plans to provide breakfast and lunch for its students through the end of the school year while Bartow will continue delivering lunch and snacks at least through April 24.
“If we can serve longer, we absolutely will,” Bartow spokeswoman Alisha Evans said.
Parents and students should continue to monitor their system’s website and Facebook page for more information in the coming weeks.