As COVID surges, metro Atlanta parents seek virtual school options

Caitlin Snyder reacts as she helps her two daughters Zoie (left), 9, and Ryleigh, 10 while they are being homeschooled on Wednesday, August 25, 2021. The parents pulled them out of Kemp Elementary in Cobb County because the district has no mask mandate and no longer has a virtual option. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Caitlin Snyder reacts as she helps her two daughters Zoie (left), 9, and Ryleigh, 10 while they are being homeschooled on Wednesday, August 25, 2021. The parents pulled them out of Kemp Elementary in Cobb County because the district has no mask mandate and no longer has a virtual option. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

In the spring, when Caitlin Snyder and her husband committed to sending their two young daughters to in-person classes this school year, COVID-19 case rates were low and the Cobb County School District required masks.

But infection rates began climbing after the enrollment deadline passed. By that time, Cobb had adopted a mask-optional policy. District officials told Snyder it was too late to switch to virtual learning.

“Had I been given this information back in the spring, I would have one hundred percent chosen virtual,” said Snyder, who opted for home-schooling.

School districts across metro Atlanta are contending with a growing crowd of parents wanting virtual learning options for their children amid a back-to-school surge in COVID-19 cases due to the highly contagious delta variant and low vaccination rates in the state.

Since the school year opened, 14 Atlanta area districts reported more than 18,500 COVID-19 cases as of Aug. 27. Confirmed coronavirus infections are also near their peak among children in the state since the start of the pandemic, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

“It was definitely not what people were expecting and not what people were hoping for,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

Now, the options are few for many parents who want to go virtual.

For school districts, the situation presents logistical challenges, such as staffing, as well as academic concerns. Recent studies found that children learning in classrooms out-performed those who remained virtual.

“The academic component is a major piece of that decision,” said Maggie Reeves, senior director of Georgia Policy Labs, a research center at Georgia State University.

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Caitlin Snyder reacts as she helps her two daughters Zoie (left), 9, and Ryleigh, 10, while they are being homeschooled on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. The parents pulled them out of Kemp Elementary in Cobb County because the district has no mask mandate and they could not enroll in virtual classes. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Caitlin Snyder reacts as she helps her two daughters Zoie (left), 9, and Ryleigh, 10, while they are being homeschooled on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. The parents pulled them out of Kemp Elementary in Cobb County because the district has no mask mandate and they could not enroll in virtual classes. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

caption arrowCaption
Caitlin Snyder reacts as she helps her two daughters Zoie (left), 9, and Ryleigh, 10, while they are being homeschooled on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. The parents pulled them out of Kemp Elementary in Cobb County because the district has no mask mandate and they could not enroll in virtual classes. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Online options

Atlanta Public Schools said 680 students are enrolled online, a sliver of the roughly 38,000 students who attend the district’s traditional, non-charter schools.

The district is exploring how to expand virtual offerings. Superintendent Lisa Herring said recently an announcement could come after the Labor Day weekend.

Some parents want that option now.

Lesley Morris’ high school daughter has special needs and returned to campus this school year. Morris is anxious about safety and her daughter and others’ ability to follow mask and hand-washing rules.

It takes a toll on you, especially with the pandemic raging with the varying variants,” she said.

Herring pointed to staffing as a challenge. The district must have a qualified virtual teacher workforce, she said, adding: “We are working to make certain that that is indeed the case.”

Domenech said school leaders nationwide staffed and assigned classes assuming most students would return to in-person learning.

“That becomes a major problem,” he said of the call for more virtual options. “Who is going to teach those kids?”

Many districts are no longer requiring teachers to lead classes in-person and online at the same time, an unwieldy model unpopular with many educators. But discontinuing that practice means families can’t move to virtual learning easily.

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Sarah Ballantyne said she chose in-person learning because her daughters are both in advanced academic programs that Cobb is not offering virtually. The oldest, in ninth grade, is vaccinated and would not be able to re-enroll in her magnet program if she opted for virtual learning this year, Ballantyne said. The youngest, a sixth-grader is not eligible for the vaccine until November.

“I really felt like I had to choose between my children’s safety and their entire educations and futures,” Ballantyne said. “Things have changed so dramatically in the last couple of weeks that I have second guessed that choice very, very often.”

But about 2,000 Cobb students are learning virtually this semester, according to the district. Families will be able to enter a lottery later this fall for virtual slots that open in January.

Gwinnett County Public Schools set an initial deadline of April to sign up for virtual learning this school year. More than 4,000 students opted in, but as the district extended the deadline through the summer, the virtual count shrank by about 800.

Parents faced a new deadline of Aug. 2 — two days before the school year began. In the final few days, almost 1,200 new students signed up for digital learning, according to a district official.

Elementary digital class sizes now average between 36 and 46, depending on the grade. The district is hiring digital substitutes to co-teach in those classes.

caption arrowCaption
Caitlin Snyder reacts as she helps her two daughters Ryleigh (left), 10, and Zoie, 9, while they are being homeschooled on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. The parents pulled them out of Kemp Elementary in Cobb County because the district has no mask mandate and they could not enroll in virtual classes. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Caitlin Snyder reacts as she helps her two daughters Ryleigh (left), 10, and Zoie, 9, while they are being homeschooled on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. The parents pulled them out of Kemp Elementary in Cobb County because the district has no mask mandate and they could not enroll in virtual classes. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

caption arrowCaption
Caitlin Snyder reacts as she helps her two daughters Ryleigh (left), 10, and Zoie, 9, while they are being homeschooled on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. The parents pulled them out of Kemp Elementary in Cobb County because the district has no mask mandate and they could not enroll in virtual classes. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Expanded opportunities

Clayton, DeKalb and Fulton schools are offering more opportunities to switch to virtual learning.

The number of Clayton County students enrolled in the district’s full-time online program nearly tripled since the first day of school. About 6,800 students are now enrolled. Students can still sign up.

As the new school year was starting, Fulton County Schools scrambled to expand virtual options. The district added more seats at Fulton Academy of Virtual Excellence, which launched this year for third through 11th grades. Enrollment was just over 1,350 in late August. The district will take up to 1,500.

Fulton officials also announced a virtual program for kindergarten through second grade. They initially set an enrollment cap of 300 but are trying to accommodate all 513 interested students.

Arathi Padmanabhan balked at a requirement to commit her third-grade son to the virtual academy for a full year and didn’t want to pull him from his elementary school.

The family picked in-person learning, but with case counts rising, she said the situation “just looks like a mess.” She’d like a more flexible option that allows students to return to classrooms once they’re eligible for and get the vaccine.

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Chief Academic Officer Cliff Jones said the district needed year-long commitments to ensure the virtual school had the appropriate budget and staffing.

He said the district worked to support families with safety concerns.

“We’ve been clear from when we first started this that we really were going to prioritize our face-to-face instructional environments. That’s where we know kids learn the best,” Jones said.

The Atlanta district set a May deadline to sign up for online learning. For now, parents who visit the program’s website will see a big exclamation mark and an alert that registration is closed.

Staff writer Scott Trubey contributed to this report.


Virtual learning enrollment

The following is approximate full-time online enrollment data as of late August for the first semester in metro area school districts:

Atlanta Public Schools: 680

Cobb: 2,000

Clayton County: 6,796

DeKalb: 2,031

Fulton: 2,000

Gwinnett: 5,347