Opinion: No district chose distance learning. State pandemic response left no option.

Georgia's popular beach getaways, shown here last week, have become a major hotspot for the coronavirus disease, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of state health data. People continue to flock to beaches, many without masks. Ryon Horne/RHORNE@AJC.COM
Georgia's popular beach getaways, shown here last week, have become a major hotspot for the coronavirus disease, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of state health data. People continue to flock to beaches, many without masks. Ryon Horne/RHORNE@AJC.COM

Credit: rhorne@ajc.com

Credit: rhorne@ajc.com

Teacher says Georgia's rush to reopen and failure to stop spread forced virtual classes

Katy Shrout is a language arts teacher at DeKalb Path Academy. She holds a master’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and a doctorate from Emory University where she also earned her undergraduate degree. She was also a documentary maker and a performer.

In this guest column, Shrout says parents angry that their local schools will be opening with virtual instruction should not blame school leaders. They did not make this decision. The state of Georgia and its citizens did -- by refusing to comply with the safety measures, social distancing and mask-wearing necessary to defeat this pandemic, she says.

By Katy Shrout

The dominos started to fall. Atlanta Public Schools was among the first: schools will open with no face-to-face classes. This news was shortly followed by updates from DeKalb, Fulton, Cobb, Clayton, Henry, and most recently, Gwinnett, as well as others. I suspect we’ll see many more.

For some, this is a frustrating, bewildering turn of events. What’s wrong with these educators? Don’t they understand that distance learning doesn’t work? What about vulnerable student populations? What about working parents? What about students’ social development and isolation? What about the American Academy of Pediatrics’ statement that we should prioritize in-person learning?

How could so many Georgia districts be making such a drastic decision?

It’s time to face the music here, Georgia. They didn’t. No school district chose distance learning.

Our state -- its government and its citizens -- chose this for our schools.

Georgia put its school districts in a position of not having a real choice. We chose distance learning in how we chose to handle the COVID-19 pandemic in our state.

Katy Shrout
Katy Shrout

In April, as you may recall, the governor decided to reopen the state far earlier than experts recommended, which most now believe led to a steady increase in new cases all summer long. We were the first state in the nation to reopen.

Back in the spring, some tried to warn us that early reopening might have consequences. But this wasn’t our priority. We now need to remember that it wasn’t. When we reopened without the data behind us, without heeding recommendations, we decided that not being able to open schools in person in the fall was a risk we were okay with.

Our state now has a steep, alarming curve of growth in both new cases and hospitalizations, and public health experts warn us we need to take action now. Addressing the spreading pandemic is a necessary step toward schools reopening. We can’t reopen until we do.

But we aren’t taking action. Our state government is not doing much in particular to stop the spread, other than asking people nicely to be careful. We don’t have state regulations requiring masks, and we don’t even let cities and local governments with high rates of COVID-19 make their own mask ordinances.

Most countries and communities, worldwide, that have successfully reopened schools have required strict measures (like masks) of their population to keep transmission down. We don’t. That was our choice. Many Georgians believe that their freedom not to wear a cloth mask for a few months was an essential issue, and we have chosen to act on that belief instead of putting strict measures in place. Maybe you think that point-of-view makes sense, and that’s fine. But please accept that we chose that over reopening schools. Please don’t complain about distance learning if you were complicit in that choice.

It’s not only the government, of course. When you see a restaurant crowded with people not wearing masks, you see people who chose not to reopen schools. When you see folks boasting on social media about how they snuck into Kroger without a mask on, you see people who chose not to reopen schools. When you see images of people gleefully having huge parties, you’re seeing people who chose not to reopen schools.

It’s bigger than the pandemic itself, of course. When we chose to underfund our schools for years, especially in high-poverty areas, we also chose to have an education system that doesn’t have the resources to shift to safe in-person learning during a pandemic. When we chose to cut the education budget for Georgia this year -- a year when we supposedly wanted our schools to open safely -- we made the decision not to reopen schools.

Lots of us say we want schools to open in-person, including our governor and our president. You hear compelling and righteous-sounding words like “students must go back” and “school is the best place for students.” But words are cheap. If going back in-person was really important to us, we would have matched our words with actions. We would have materially supported the reopening of schools, and we would have done more to get a handle on the COVID-19 pandemic in our state.

If it worries you that Georgia’s children have to do online learning again, let me assure you, as a teacher, it worries me, too. But rather than argue endlessly with districts about the decisions they were forced into -- clinging to the idea that some safe, in-person school start is actually possible with our numbers as they are -- let’s try to do something more productive.

Please join me in putting our focus on making distance learning better, more effective, and more equitable. Please join me in putting energy towards addressing what didn’t work last spring. If you’re truly worried about families without access to technology, special education students, or students with parents who can’t supervise their learning, let’s work to solve what districts need to do this better.

Crucially, please join me in advocating that we develop a statewide strategy in bringing our new case rate down so that we can realistically open at some point in 2020-21. There’s no magic fairy coming to stop COVID-19 in Georgia. We either need to try (once again) to flatten our curve, or we need to resign ourselves to a long, drawn-out pandemic, and maybe a whole year of online school.

Don’t blame district leaders for making the decision to do distance learning. We created a situation in which they had no choice. Let’s create another situation now.

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