FLATWOODS Russell schools will return to in-person classes in three phases starting Sept. 28, reversing a board decision in August to remain virtual-only for the first nine-week grading period.

However, the district will continue to offer a virtual-only option for the remainder of the school year.

The board made the change Monday, following the recommendation of Superintendent Sean Horne.

"I think we have the support of the community and the support of our staff . . . Everybody has come together in a very positive way in order for us to make this decision," board chair Judy Ledford said. "We have a good plan and all our bases are covered. And parents who are uncomfortable can choose the virtual option."

The three phases will extend over the first three days of in-person instruction, according to a plan Horne outlined.

On Sept. 28, kindergarten, third, sixth, and ninth grades will return. Those are the transition grades, in other words, the first grades of elementary, intermediate, middle and high school. Since those children will be in their buildings for the first time, they will have that day to adjust without the presence of older students, Horne said.

On Sept. 29, first, fourth, seventh and 10th grades will return, and on Sept. 30 the rest of the student body, except for those opting for virtual only, will return.

The district will observe its fall break days, Oct. 2 and Oct. 5, which have been in the calendar since before the pandemic shut down schools this fall, and that will make the week before and the week after four day weeks, and that will ease the transition, Horne said.

Families choosing the virtual option will have to contact principals before Sept. 28. Families will be permitted to move from in-person to virtual until Oct. 9, and after that will remain in the chosen option through the remainder of the first nine-week period.

Virtual lessons will lag a day behind in-person classes, largely because conducting the two kinds of lessons adds significantly to teacher workload -- teachers have to upload all lessons to Google Classroom.

Teachers will be available until 5 p.m. each day for questions from students. Questions submitted after that time will be answered the next day. The cutoff time also is aimed at easing the added burden virtual education places on teachers.

Each building will schedule a teacher for extended school services and will set that schedule independently.

Preschool will start two weeks after the K-12 grades and this year preschoolers will go two full days per week.

All students, including preschoolers, will be require to wear masks at all times except when eating. Students with documented medical exemptions will not have to wear masks. However, those students will be required to wear face shields.

The mask rule is based on the most recent state and health department guidance, Horne said.

Masks will be required at all times on buses, and students must be temperature-checked at home and must apply hand sanitizer before boarding. Students also will have temperatures checked before entering school.

The temperature cutoff point is 100.4 degrees. Above that and students will be isolated and parents will be notified to pick them up.

A spike in COVID-19 cases in one school building might prompt closure of that building alone, leaving other schools open and the students of the closed school in virtual instruction.

The board adopted the plan after hearing mostly upbeat reports from its principals, school nurse, athletic director and preschool director.

The plan will remain fluid and the district will respond to any spike in cases or any recommendations or requirements from the health department, Horne said.

The previous plan to stretch our virtual-only instruction for nine weeks provided the district a cushion of time to assess its preparedness and to observe the progress of the virus around the state, particularly in school districts that opted to resume in-person classes early, Horne said. Case numbers are up in Greenup County but not in the district, he said.

The Greenup County Health Department also OK'd the return, he said.

At last count, about 75 percent of the district's students were planning to attend in-person classes, but that number is likely to increase, he said.

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