OPINION: With classrooms still closed, has DeKalb Schools lost its north star?

A sign says it all to passing motorists at Murphey Candler Elementary School at 6775 S Goddard Road in Lithonia, DeKalb County on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
A sign says it all to passing motorists at Murphey Candler Elementary School at 6775 S Goddard Road in Lithonia, DeKalb County on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM



Parent urges DeKalb to resume in-person learning for well-being and future of elementary school students

In a guest column, a DeKalb parent urges school districts to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advice and reopen schools for younger students.

In its recent guidance, the CDC said elementary schools can reopen, even with high rates of COVID-19 transmission, with mitigations in place, including masks and hybrid models that combine face-to-face classes with online instruction to reduce the number of children in buildings at one time and enable social distancing.

The CDC guidance states: “Lower incidence of COVID-19 among younger children compared to teenagers suggests that younger students (for example, elementary school students) are likely to have less risk of in-school transmission due to in-person learning than older students (middle school and high school).”

Almost all Georgia districts offer some level of in-person instruction at this point. Decatur, a city within DeKalb with its own public school system, and Atlanta Public Schools restarted classes for some students last month.

DeKalb brought back teachers to school buildings, but not students, citing COVID-19 rates in the county. However, superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris will hold a “state of the district” address Tuesday where she is likely to address reopening.

Parent Beth Collums holds a master’s degree in clinical psychology and has been a child and family therapist. She has four children.

By Beth Collums

The backpacks are collecting dust on their hooks in the coat closet. It’s been nearly a year since my three elementary school kids have used them.

I’ve listened intently to news the past month since the vaccines began streaming into the blood of neighbors, friends and, thankfully, family members. I’ve watched, as across our state and our country, children returning to schools and doing a delicate and sometimes slow dance of safety and education.

Private schools in our community have been learning face-to-face in the school buildings since August. It’s nearing the end of February now, cold has blanketed our home, frost has nipped at the flowers beginning to bud and my children are still not in the school building.

DeKalb parent Beth Collums
DeKalb parent Beth Collums

Credit: Alyson Duke

Credit: Alyson Duke

Luckily our home is equipped with plugs, signal extenders, headphones with microphones, laptops that we have relied on all school year to enhance education. Thankfully, my children are aided by my availability to help them navigate changing websites and moving to different online platform changes, often hourly.

What about the children who are home alone because their single working mothers are at the office building vacuuming and cleaning toilets? What about the kindergarteners who are trying to navigate being at an abusive uncle’s home due to their mom having to do shift work? What about the refugee family whose fifth grader depends on daily guidance counselor’s check in for hunger? What about the family who is so stressed out about finances that they emotionally and sometimes physically lash out at their third grader?

Rest assured all of these scenarios are being played out in our local public school district of DeKalb County, which impacts over 90,000 students. No small impact.

Health experts across the globe have researched and recommended that the cost of having our kids out of the schoolroom is greater than the health risk posed now by returning. Eduation experts have deemed face-to face-instruction essential in the formative elementary years and warned that the loss of a year of hands-on learning could be devastating in progressing to the next grade level.

Have we lost our north star of putting kids first in education? Have politics and bickering over local political spoils corrupted yet another area of society involving children’s health and welfare?

I am fully on board with vaccinating teachers imminently, even rearranging homerooms where some high risk staff and faculty can remain safely at home, offering virtual learning to children who have fragile health or are near those who do; however, delaying children the opportunity to learn in a school room at this point is purely motivated by people who are out to benefit in some way from withholding that opportunity.

Our north star as educators and child advocates is not to heed the advice of teachers, not to listen to the needs of parents; it is plain and simply to serve the welfare of the children.

Do we even remember what the students’ needs are?

The students are the customers, not the school board, not the loud teachers, not the squeaky wheeled parents, the children. Just this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced its stance on children safely returning to school, and it was declared by the CDC to be safe as long as an environment with mitigation efforts were enforced such as distancing, mask wearing, cleaning opportunities, tracking when exposure occurs.

If we are not ready after 11-and-a-half months of preparation to do this creatively, we have been sitting on our hands as schools, communities, and citizens. These are not easy solutions. However, the number of children in low socioeconomic situations who lean on the public school system for meals, abuse detection, special needs services, daycare for single working moms is startling.

Have we forgotten the silent, voiceless population that depends on the structure of school to make it through the week? Who will take the mantle of being a child advocate if the leaders of local education are not? Imminent resolution is necessary, no more dragging feet as countless children silently suffer.

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