Decatur postpones reopening of schools

Teachers, parents and students, including Keri Chaya, left, and her daughter 10-year-old Calla Lockwood, right, protest in front of the Decatur City School Headquarters on Trinity Place in response to the district's plan to return teachers to schools in an effort to get back to in-person learning Friday, Oct, 9, 2020. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Students in Decatur will not be returning to their classrooms this fall after the school district reversed course following several protests and the resignation of teachers.

Saying that recent public health information had changed his mind, Superintendent David Dude said he had revised his assessment that it was safe to begin a phased-in reopening this month. He said most students, who have been online-only, should start in-person no sooner than Jan. 5 instead.

Before that revision during a school board meeting Tuesday night, parents and teachers held a third protest outside the City Schools of Decatur headquarters.

Courtney Hartnett, a teacher at Oakhurst Elementary School, said a lack of transparency had contributed to mistrust. For instance, she only learned through word-of-mouth that a staffer working at her school over the summer had to be hospitalized for COVID-19. It was never publicly reported, but she said the staffer told her this: “I thought I was going to die.”

Teachers were also critical of what they saw as a lack of planning after Dude abruptly announced last month that schools would be opening. Administrators haven’t produced answers to basic questions, like how students will eat meals safely in their classrooms when masks must come off, or how teachers should teach students in-person and at home simultaneously.

“I think what most of us are upset about is there is no plan,” said Beverly Beyer, a science teacher at Renfroe Middle School.

Under the revised plan employees will continue to work remotely, including those who returned to work in school buildings this week. Students in the special education program could still return to classrooms Oct. 19.

Dude said new facts about the coronavirus led to his about-face, from the number of infections to details about the risk of airborne transmission.

“We are very concerned by the recent reports that this virus is aerosolized,” he told his school board.

Numerous members of the public spoke in favor of postponing.

“We would like to thank Dr. Dude for recognizing that the data do not support returning to school,” said one of them, Julie Gutman. High school student Gabriel Richardson said he saw “great merit in the new analysis” by the superintendent.

Dude bemoaned the lack of clear guidance from the state and federal government about when it is safe to open schools and when it is necessary to close them.

Board members supported Dude’s decision to delay reopening. Jana Johnson-Davis was “very pleased.” Lewis Jones said there would be consequences for some children for whom online learning does not work but said the fears expressed about COVID-19 were “rationale” and “reasonable.”

Jones said science has not yet produced enough information to calculate the risk or adequately mitigate it. Schools have been building an airplane on the fly, he said, “and then we discover we need a submarine.”

More information about the plans going forward are expected from the district Friday.

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