Start of school in Hall 'feels more normal,' but security concerns loom

Aug. 5—On the first day of school in Hall County on Friday, educators at the new Cherokee Bluff Middle School say things feel more normal — and also more special with the opening of Hall County's first new school in 15 years.

But that enthusiasm was tempered by concerns over school security after the elementary school massacre in Texas and a summer plagued by mass shootings.

"We're looking forward to more of a normal school year because the last two years have been anything but normal," said Robert Wilson, the middle school's principal.

He was referring to the COVID-19 pandemic and the ways in which it consumed nearly all aspects of public schooling in the past two years.

The pandemic cloud has receded — though cases are rising again — but another worry looms overhead.

"Of course, school safety is first and foremost on our minds right now," Wilson said, "with what happened in Texas and all the violence over the summer."

In May, an 18-year-old man in Uvalde, Texas, entered Robb Elementary unimpeded and gunned down 19 children and two teachers.

Last week, the school system conducted an active shooter drill with local law enforcement. And in July, the school board approved $1 million in additional security spending, which may include biometric gun safes to store rifles, in addition to "hardening" targets and improving mental health support. Superintendent Will Schofield previously told The Times that "everything is on the table."

Even against that backdrop, the realities of the first day meant that middle schoolers were free to flood in through the two sets of front doors.

"Normally we would have those doors shut," Wilson said. "You'd have to be buzzed in, then you're in the atrium, and then you have to get buzzed in again, so it's double secure."

Erin King, a marketing teacher who transferred from Gwinnett County Public Schools, said the start of school "feels more normal" this year. It was her first day teaching in Hall County.

"Just being able to see all the faces, it was very different for me," she said, noting that students in Gwinnett were forced to mask up. "It feels like we've gotten kind of all the mess behind us and we're ready to go back to the way things kind of were pre-COVID."

One of the perks of working in Hall County, she said, is that it has a small-community feel, and getting the chance to work in the district's newest school isn't too shabby either.

"We're all in awe of what we get to work in," she said.

The new Cherokee Bluff campus is located in Flowery Branch at the southern end of the county, the "fastest growing part of the district," Schofield previously told The Times, which he hopes "will take care of growth within the district for the next 10 years or so."

The 209,700-square-foot school cost about $39 million.

About half of the 1,600 or so students from the old Cherokee Bluff Middle School, which is housed in the same building as Cherokee Bluff High, transferred to the new school.

Schofield said Friday afternoon that he spoke to a dozen or so principals about how the first day went.

"A lot of smiles and laughter, and it's just so good to have these kids back in school," he said. "People seem more relaxed. People seem more overjoyed. Last year we had thought we were over COVID, and then it came roaring back right before school."

At one point during the delta wave of the pandemic last year, a dozen Hall schools implemented mask mandates in an effort to combat the spread of infections, though the district as a whole remained mask-optional. The same is true this year, though unlike last year, schools will not keep track of COVID-19 infections unless cases rise.

As for school security, Schofield said, "it's something that's always in the back of my mind."

He said he and other district leaders are stepping up their efforts to keep schools safe.

"I feel very good about where we are and some of the changes we continue to make," he said. "To make our schools as safe as possible — and let kids be kids."