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story.lead_photo.caption Fulton Public Schools Director of Food Services Rhonda Fletcher addresses the school board. Photo by Olivia Garrett / Fulton Sun.

The Fulton Sun is offering this article free to all readers because it includes information important to public safety and health in our community.

Quarantine is one of the biggest challenges facing Fulton schools.

During Wednesday evening's Fulton Public Schools Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Ty Crain updated the board on educating students during a pandemic.

"We're working well — it's manageable," Crain said. "We have to be vigilant in what we're doing because the thing that will really come up and get us will be staff."

As of Thursday, there were two active positive cases in the district. But 82 staff and students are currently in quarantine due to exposure.

"When we get to a point that staff, whether it be food service, three or four bus drivers, five or six teachers in the same building — that will be the challenge that really gets us to a point where we might have to transition," Crain said.

Though active cases in the district are currently low, the pandemic is still spreading — as of Thursday, there were 155 active cases in Callaway County. Over the course of the pandemic, another 289 people have since recovered and three have died, according to the Callaway County Health Department.

The school district is keeping Fulton families updated on the situation in the schools with a daily counter of new cases, total active cases and quarantine numbers. The data can be found at bit.ly/3bPwsj5.

"So far, we've weathered that storm thanks to the creativity of our administrators and the willingness of our staff to step up and do whatever it takes to fill in where we need to keep things moving," Crain said.

One difficulty of having some students home and others in the classroom is concurrent teaching.

"For teachers, the greatest challenge is teaching in what we might call a concurrent classroom," Assistant Superintendent Chris Hubbuch said. "And that would be one where you are instructing students in person but also students who are assigned to you online who might be gone for a shorter period of time."

The district has worked to provide teachers with resources to help support them in efforts with concurrent teaching and blended learning.

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"Unfortunately, there's very little research about that (concurrent) model, because I don't think the model really existed prior to 2020," Hubbuch said.

A large number of students decided not to attend in-person school at all this fall — these students are learning online through a vendor that uses teachers outside of the school district. As of Thursday, 289 students are enrolled in virtual classes from an approved vendor — 98 elementary students, 77 middle school students and 114 high school students.

"Counselors from each school are monitoring student engagement and progress in the online coursework as we speak," Hubbuch said.

Hubbuch also updated the board on testing.

"The U.S. Department of Education has indicated that there will not be a waiver for testing for the current school year," he said. "DESE, along those lines, has provided the typical testing schedule and all the testing windows. So we are proceeding with the understanding that the federally-mandated assessments will take place this school year."

In other pandemic-related business, Crain said the county has told the school district it will fund the full cost of thermal cameras that were recently installed in the schools. Originally, the district and county had agreed to split the costs 20-80.

The board also heard an update on food services from director of food services Rhonda Fletcher.

Last year, the district served slightly more meals than during the 2018-19 school year. There were also slightly fewer students who qualified for free and reduced lunch.

Fletcher also spoke about a federal decision that could help the district provide free lunches and breakfasts for students. During the summer, Fulton participated in the Summer Food Service Program, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced SFSP has been extended into the fall months.

"And that was a decision that took a lot of push from the School Nutrition Association and all of us who tried to make sure that they realize that this was a good thing for our schools," Fletcher said.

To take advantage of the program and implement free meals this fall, school districts must first apply.

"The plan is that we will start that program as soon as we can get the application process done and my staff trained so that we can do the paperwork, and get that going so we can offer the free meals, breakfast and lunch, for the students of the district," Fletcher said.

The USDA said the SFSP program will last either until December or until funding runs out.

"Now with the communication that we're going to have to do is to make sure that the parents realize that the meals that we have served up to that point (when the district is approved and can switch to SFSP) have been under the DESE program and they still had to pay for those meals," Fletcher said. "If this program is not extended past December, we'll have to again start paying for their meals."

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