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School chief: We support districts in their reopening choices

Gov. Brian Kemp and Superintendent Richard Woods have been on the same page during the coronavirus pandemic, agreeing that local districts ought to make their own calls on appropriate responses.  BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Gov. Brian Kemp and Superintendent Richard Woods have been on the same page during the coronavirus pandemic, agreeing that local districts ought to make their own calls on appropriate responses. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Richard Woods says his job is to work with governor to ensure safety for students

Amid the ongoing debate about how and when Georgia school districts should open for face-to-face instruction, state school chief Richard Woods issued a statement this morning that both supports districts in their autonomy and Brian Kemp in his leadership.

Woods has a much better relationship with Gov. Kemp than he did with former GOP Gov. Nathan Deal. In this statement, Woods suggests media accounts have implied a rift between school leaders and state leaders.

That surprised me, and I did a quick look at headlines statewide and saw nothing that suggested a feud. While news stories have said both men want K-12 schools to open, the reporters also have duly noted that neither endorses mandating schools to do so.

From Richard Woods:

School leaders, teachers, parents, students, families – and state leaders – have been making tough decisions since the onset of COVID-19 in our schools in March. I have stood with our schools since the first cases in the Fulton County School System.

Gov. Kemp stood with our schools when he made the call to close schools across our state last spring. The governor has been consistent in his commitment to public education – laser-focused on fully funding the education formula and providing our educators a much-deserved pay raise.

As a pandemic crashed into our state’s economy, the governor made tough decisions that blunted the destructive blow to education funding and preserved progress on teacher pay raises. As a 28-year public-school educator myself, I want you to know he has been a true partner of mine in supporting public education and doing what’s best for students and educators.

With a new school year beginning, public education experts are again being called to make public health decisions.

The same people – school leaders, teachers, parents, students, families, and state leaders – are making tough decisions once again. These groups of Georgians all agree that the ideal educational environment for our children is in the classroom. Trust me, as a veteran educator myself, I know teachers want to get back into their classrooms, too. But I also know safety must be at the forefront.

Most of our school districts, in talking with their families, staff, communities, and evaluating public health data, are currently planning an in-person start to their school year. They are offering combinations of virtual options, hybrid models, or full in-person instruction.

Other districts, particularly those in our metro areas, where there are high population concentrations and high COVID-19 case counts, have decided to go with full online learning with a planned phase-in to in-person instruction.

The role of the Georgia Department of Education is to support the course of action decided upon by local school districts, so that we can work together to ensure a successful outcome for students.

Whatever the start of school looks like, no one can guarantee a start without hiccups or challenges, but I can guarantee we will do everything possible to ensure our students are safe and learning.

The community needs and public health data look very different from one area of the state to another. Macon, the city, is very different from Macon County. Decatur, the city, is very different from Decatur County. We must recognize that, honor that, and continue to let local communities and school districts make local decisions -- that’s how we will build trust and how we will get back to school safely.

It is critical that school districts establish an ongoing dialogue with their communities, students, families, and staff. Engaging them in restart efforts at the beginning and throughout the upcoming school year is key so they have buy-in and faith in this unique educational experience.

Let me be very clear: school districts and communities will continue to have my full support and commitment in the path they select. Whatever a school district’s decision, our issued guidance supports that model.

We are distributing face coverings, no-touch thermometers, hand sanitizing stations, and other supplies to all our schools so they are better prepared. We are also seeking a federal testing waiver so students and teachers can focus on what truly matters – health, safety, and learning.

Despite headlines that seek to pit state leaders against school leaders, the governor and I have a proven record of working together alongside our educators and school leaders.

We will continue to be there alongside our school leaders and provide as much service and support as possible – every step of the way. We stood with our schools and educators in March when the virus started hitting our schools and we will continue to stand with them as they start the new school year, and throughout.

No doubt, there are many tough decisions still ahead, but we will get through them – together.

But one choice is clear – the health and safety of students and school staff, the true heroes of this on-going crisis, must remain paramount. We will continue to choose compassion over compliance.

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