Georgia schools still free to choose their own fall opening dates

Desks are seen socially distanced in Northbrook Middle School in Suwanee on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Many metro Atlanta districts have since opted to go online-only this fall. REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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Desks are seen socially distanced in Northbrook Middle School in Suwanee on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Many metro Atlanta districts have since opted to go online-only this fall. REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Georgia schools will not be asked to open late despite talks about a mandated delay amid a surging coronavirus pandemic, as some districts plan to open within the next couple of weeks.

Some state officials talked behind the scenes late Wednesday about the idea of delaying the reopening of schools until Sept. 8, but it did not come up at the Georgia Board of Education meeting Thursday.

Though Gov. Brian Kemp was the one who ordered schools to close in March as the pandemic started to worsen, the state school board, whose members were appointed by Kemp and his predecessor, was asked to pass a resolution calling for schools to reopen after Labor Day.

A person in Kemp’s office familiar with the discussions said Wednesday evening that some of Georgia’s 180 superintendents wanted more time to prepare for in-person schooling, and Kemp and Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey supported the idea.

By Thursday morning, though, the board was backing away from a vote, with plans to merely discuss the idea. But the item didn’t appear on the published agenda and the idea was not discussed.

Georgia School Boards Association Executive Director Valarie Wilson heard about the proposal Wednesday.

She said a statewide push to delay school “flies in the face” of the principle of local control. Local leaders know their communities best, she said. “I don’t see how mandating they wait until Sept. 8 helps them,” she said, adding that this was a last-minute move that would catch a lot of school boards off guard.

“I can only assume they started getting pushback from districts,” she said of the backpedaling Thursday. “I know I heard from quite a few who were very upset.”

Kemp’s office had no explanation for why the proposal was dropped.

“This week, we solicited feedback from superintendents on this idea, but the state board did not move forward with it,” Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said in an emailed statement after the board meeting. “We will continue to work with educational leaders to ensure a safe and productive learning environment for all of our students in these unprecedented times.”

Kemp and state school Superintendent Richard Woods have been encouraging schools to open in-person.

Last week, as one metro Atlanta school district after another retreated online, the pair held a news conference at the state Capitol with Toomey to make an appeal: They said they were weighing health risks alongside economic factors.

Without in-person schooling, many parents of younger children will be unable to leave their homes for work, unless they can find child care.

“We have to protect livelihoods of people in our state,” Kemp said. “We are fighting two battles.”

Toomey said there would be some coronavirus infections among students and teachers and that the state was doing everything it could to obtain protective resources.

Woods, a former school teacher and school administrator, said he had opened schools 22 times during his career. “I can guarantee you kids will be safe. Teachers will be safe.”

On Tuesday, Woods issued a statement clarifying that decisions to open were still up to local superintendents and elected school boards.

Health experts in Georgia have been warning of the danger of opening schools if the spread of COVID-19 is not under control.

Dr. Wendy Armstrong, a professor at the Emory University School of Medicine, described Georgia Thursday as a “hot spot.” She suggested that community leaders wait to open schools until they see a reduction in the number of local cases over a two-week period and a decreasing percentage of positive cases among those tested.

School districts can open when they choose, and many have pushed back their openings by a week or two into mid-August. The state notion of a delay into September came amid pushback from teachers who fear a return to school while COVID-19 cases spike.

A further delay would have sent parents scrambling to find child care.

There are several teacher advocacy groups in Georgia, and the largest, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, has polled more than 16,000 teachers and other educators and found many wanted to delay reopening though they didn’t pick a particular date.

They hoped a later start would give the state time to reduce the spread of the virus and their school districts time to refine their safety plans. Teachers are not paid to work in the summer, and many wanted to return to their classrooms a week or two ahead of students to game out how social distancing would work in their classrooms, hallways, cafeterias and other normally crowded areas.

Many districts are already pushing back their reopening dates. The school board in Forsyth County decided Tuesday to push their opening back a week to Aug. 13. The Ben Hill district in south central Georgia had planned to open Wednesday but is now planning on Aug. 3. Jackson County, north of Athens, is opening Aug. 12, partly online.

About 1 in 4 Jackson County parents chose an online option, with the rest deciding to send their children to a classroom. Had the state recommended a month’s delay, the district would have stayed with its starting date by moving all classes online until Sept. 8, Superintendent April Howard said.

“It would not have been terribly disruptive,” Howard said. “It may have made things a little easier. It would have given us more time to prepare.”