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All Newton students to learn virtually beginning Sept. 8
School protest
A protester stands outside the Newton County Board of Education administration building before the school board met Friday, Aug. 7. - photo by Mason Wittner

COVINGTON, Ga. — Newton County’s school superintendent became the final decision-maker Friday, Aug. 7, on when and how students will be taught this year.

In a special called meeting, Superintendent Samantha Fuhrey said all students will be taught virtually and the school year will begin Sept. 8 after a majority of county school board members did not support offering students an additional in-person learning option.

Fuhrey opened the meeting by recommending the board approve an all-virtual format because Newton County was seeing a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases. 

Board members then tied 2-2 on a vote to begin the school year on Aug. 24 with all-virtual learning. 

They later tied 2-2 on a vote to approve Fuhrey's recommendation to begin the school year Sept. 8 with a mix of in-person and virtual learning options — but following a board meeting Aug. 31 which potentially could have changed the learning method based on latest COVID-19 numbers.

Chairwoman Shakila Henderson-Baker said the tie votes meant Fuhrey would make the final decisions on the learning method and start date. 

“With a tie, you have a right to say what it is that you want to do without a vote needed,” Henderson-Baker told Fuhrey.

Henderson-Baker said, by law, if a four-member board ties on a vote concerning school operations the final decision is given to the superintendent in her role as the school district’s executive operations officer.

“Her initial recommendation was to close schools and have a virtual operation if conditions exist that may threaten the health and safety of students and personnel,” Henderson-Baker said after the meeting. 

“The school board attorney had already advised that this policy could be used — since she wanted to close the schools — if the board could not make a decision,” she said.

Fuhrey said the school year should begin Sept. 8 rather than the previously agreed date of Aug. 24 because staff members needed the extra time to be trained in virtual learning methods.

Other administrators at the meeting told board member they were prepared to provide enough devices and had worked with internet providers to increase data to serve all students.

But board members Trey Bailey of District 1 and Abigail Coggin of District 5 said parts of their districts lacked internet access and in-person learning was the best option for them.

Administrators could not assure them the school district would have the needed infrastructure by the start of the school year, she said. 

Coggin said numbers she had seen showed a decrease in the daily rate. 

She also noted that schools typically are where such social ills as child abuse are detected. Some students also have said they were worried their grades will suffer if forced to only learn virtually rather than in a school setting, she said.

Bailey said Newton County was unique because it bordered rural Georgia counties on the east that favor in-person learning, and metro Atlanta counties on the west that are primarily using virtual learning. Because of its geographical and cultural mix, Newton County should offer a blend of both types of learning, he said.

The Friday changes followed the school system's early July announcement students would be allowed to choose either in-person or virtual learning this year.

About 4,000 students requested in-person instruction, while between 6,000 and 7,000 students requested virtual instruction and about 1,800 students requested the self-paced virtual option, Fuhrey said in July.

On Friday, she said she was doing her best to keep staff and students safe by making her new recommendation.

"I recognize how politically charged this is," she said. "I have no political motivation -- zero, zilch, zip."

Some teachers and a Newton High School football player were diagnosed with the virus recently, Fuhrey noted.

She also said state health officials had not been as clear in their explanations about the spread of COVID-19 in recent months because they were unsure about the transmission rate.

Publisher and Editor Taylor Beck contributed to this report.