Fayette County BOE President Pat Gray, right, listens as Superintendent Gary Hough speaks at a special meeting Tuesday, Aug. 4 with county health officials to discuss the county system's plans for returning to school.

FAYETTEVILLE — Barring an unforeseen uptick in Covid-19 cases or other unexpected circumstances in the coming weeks, Fayette County Schools are still on target to be in their physical buildings when the school year opens on Sept. 8.

The Fayette plan calls for students and teachers to be in their classrooms five days a week, utilizing a staggered start in the initial week to ease everyone back into classroom situations which they haven't encountered since March. Various grade levels will report on certain days, with the plan calling for all students to be at school on Sept. 15.

A second scenario, if necessary, calls for a blended learning format, which will feature a mix of remote learning and days of instruction onsite.

The third option is full remote learning.

At a special meeting of the Fayette County Board of Education on Tuesday, Aug. 4, Fayette County health officials told board members and Superintendent Gary Hough the current health climate in the county lends itself to sticking with the stated primary option, which calls for a full return to schools. No vote related to re-entry was taken during the meeting.

"Give our current (environment), the benefits of going five days a week outweigh the risks at this point," said Dr. Anita Stewart, the Fayette County health officer. With the current case numbers and incidences locally, Stewart said it's "still appropriate to do five days, as long as they wear a mask."

"Currently, I would definitely recommend the five days," said Teri Harlan, Fayette County Health Department administrator. "I am so concerned about our kids not being in school for a number of reasons."

Mask wearing must be stressed with staff and students, various officials said throughout the evening.

The Fayette plan calls for children to wear masks on buses to and from school, and they are "strongly encouraged" with all students and staff inside, board president Pat Gray said. Multiple changes are being taken to limit movement in the hallways and elsewhere.

Saying she was glad to see those in attendance at Tuesday's meeting donning masks, Harlan said, "In the classroom, everybody should be wearing a mask."

In the "constantly changing" world that is the Covid-19 pandemic, Harlan said operating schools safely will "require a lot of flexibility, and it's going to require a lot of flexibility throughout the school year."

The county has spent the past few months installing precautions related to sanitizing buses, buildings and classrooms.

Obviously, Harlan said, if Fayette County experiences an outbreak or outbreaks before school starts as has happened in surrounding counties recently, local officials will have to take a step back and re-assess.

If classes do eventually start on school campuses, a case or cases of Covid-19 is inevitable, Stewart said. "We know we're going to have a case; just know it's going to happen," she said to the board. "You can do everything right and you're still going to have a case." Earlier, Stewart said, "When we have our first case in a school, it's going to be scary."

Transparency and relying on guidance from health experts is among the key components, she said. "The virus is seven months old, we're learning every day, we're reading every day."

Questions and discussion during the evening included what to do if social distancing isn't possible in certain classrooms, the possibility of testing for Covid-19 prior to the beginning of the school term, what the process will be if a case does arise, and extracurricular activities. "If (at any time) we're saying we need to back off on schools, then that includes athletics," Stewart said.

The superintendent and board members thanked Harlan, Stewart and the health department for its partnership and guidance in recent months.

The board will meet again in regular session at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 11. Gray said that, if necessary, further discussion could be held on the re-entry process at that meeting, and he indicated an additional meeting could be scheduled later for more discussion if needed.

"Right now with our plan being a five-day re-entry, I didn't hear anything this evening that would change our minds ... but we don't know what's going to happen between now and then," Gray said.

He said additional guidance from county or state health officials would be called upon in the coming weeks.

The county held registration recently for a virtual school option for families who have concerns with their children being in classrooms this fall.

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