The Douglas County School System announced Thursday it will begin the 2020-2021 school year entirely online, with a new start date of Aug. 17 — a week later than planned.

All students will learn remotely for the first nine weeks of school and at that point the situation will be re-evaluated to determine how to move forward, Superintendent Trent North said.

Just a few weeks ago, the school system had planned to give students the choice of traditional in-person learning, all digital learning or a hybrid option. But with confirmed cases of COVID-19 spiking in Douglas County and across the state, North said the school board made the decision to start the year with all remote learning.

The school system gave additional clarity on Friday, noting the original "Learning by Design" plan to reopen school with traditional in-person learning as an option "would be offered as long as the spread of COVID-19 fell into the low/no or minimal/moderate categories."

When the "Learning by Design" document was released June 30, the system said in a Facebook post, "community spread was in the minimal/moderate category."

"Over the last few days, the community spread has been categorized as substantial, so we are following our plan and moving to the digital learning model for all students," the school system said.

The number of confirmed cases in Douglas County rose 21% in the seven days from July 10-17, from 1,347 to 1,632, according to the state Department of Public Health, and the number of deaths caused by the disease was up from 39 to 41 over that period.

The school system said "data will drive the decisions" and that there is a "plan in place that will accommodate learning for whichever degree of spread we are experiencing in Douglas County."

Neighboring Cobb and Fulton counties announced this week they will also start the year with remote learning. As of Friday, Douglas County's two other neighboring counties — Carroll and Paulding — planned to open their school years with in-person learning as an option.

In an email to parents Thursday, North said the move came after consulting with Cobb & Douglas Public Health and "careful consideration of the health and safety of students and staff."

North said the extra week before school starts will give school staff an opportunity to "issue learning devices to students and prepare for digital lessons."

"Schools will work with parents to resolve internet access challenges. The COVID-19 situation will be evaluated after the first nine weeks of school and a decision will be made at that time of how to proceed for the following nine-week period," North wrote in the email.

North said the school system is authorized to make this independent decision based on the executive order issued by Gov. Brian Kemp.

Graduation ceremonies for high schools in Douglas County will proceed as scheduled on July 21 and 22, North said. Graduations will be held outside with social distancing protocols in place.

Graduates are limited to two guests, and face coverings are strongly encouraged when social distancing is not possible, North said. He said it is optional for students to participate in graduation, and all ceremonies will be live-streamed.

"While we recognize the challenges remote learning will have on our families and community, the Board of Education members and I strongly believe that this is the right decision based on projections from several data platforms," North wrote. "Please know that the school system and our teachers are dedicated to providing a quality education for your children during these challenging times. As always, we appreciate the support of our parents and community."

Visit https://bit.ly/2BeCAnm to read the entire 21-page Learning by Design plan for the 2020-2021 school year during the pandemic.