Some Fulton teachers urge: Push back timeline for face-to-face classes

Fulton County Schools teachers and children protest the district's plan of returning to face-to-face instruction with a walkout during lunch on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020.

Credit: Provided by Brett Edeker

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Fulton County Schools teachers and children protest the district's plan of returning to face-to-face instruction with a walkout during lunch on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020.

Credit: Provided by Brett Edeker

Concerned teachers walked out at noon Thursday to protest return plans

It is difficult to gauge how many of Fulton 7,500 teachers oppose the district’s plan to begin returning students to classroom next week or participated in a noon walkout Thursday over the plan. At some schools, teachers stood in the rain with signs declaring, “We can’t keep them safe.”

See AJC news account and district response here.

The walkout -- during the lunch break when teachers were not leading remote learning classes and able to sign out -- was enough of a concern that Superintendent Mike Looney sent out this email to all employees right before noon Thursday.

I want to remind us all of why we entered this profession, for our students. In the past couple of months, the burden that we have collectively been carrying has been great, and we have all stepped up to the plate. Your dedication has been noticed and appreciated.

In recent days, a handful of dissatisfied individuals have devised plans to display such in a manner that does not adhere to our professional standards. These plans distract from the good work done by so many for our students and colleagues during this period of COVID-19. Let me be extremely clear, I do not support walking out. Any such demonstration during work and instructional time is wholly disruptive and to some degree, selfish. Those who participate will be held accountable and face the appropriate consequences.

This is not the time to splinter ourselves. It is the time to speak openly with each other, so we that can continue to work together for the betterment of our students and communities.

- Fulton County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney

As is the case across metro Atlanta, there are tensions between parents who want their children back in school and staff wary of returning to what they consider high-risk classroom settings. Parents in favor of returning point to the other metro counties already open for in-person classes.

Here is a collective statement from the Fulton teachers worried about the phase-in plan that will begin Monday:

We, the faculty and staff of Fulton County Schools, again acknowledge that this unprecedented time is exerting tremendous pressure on school, county, and state leadership to make potentially life and death decisions for thousands of students, teachers, and their families. The 7,500 dedicated teacher professionals of the Fulton County school system strongly believe in open communication with its educational leadership and science based, data-driven decisions regarding the health and well-being of all school based employees and students. As such, we stand in firm opposition to the recently announced timeline to return to full face-to-face instruction.

In spite of making many good-faith efforts over several weeks to reach out to county leadership, untold numbers of educators have had their legitimate concerns completely disregarded as relates to reasonable steps needed to ensure safe and healthy school environments. For reasons that were never justified, our Fulton County leadership has recklessly chosen to reintroduce face-to-face instruction in spite of the present level of COVID-19 community spread. This approach flies in the face of the Georgia Department of Public Health’s established standards for preventing the further transmission of this deadly virus.

Our three main concerns at this time and requested solutions follow:

1. A plan for a phased opening was drafted and distributed in July. The plan stated that each phase was to be based on data for case counts over the prior two weeks. This original plan allowed ample time for teachers to prepare for the number of returning students and to make changes to the daily class and school routine necessary to accommodate them. Furthermore, the July plan allowed for two weeks between phases, allowing more time to aggregate data and track COVID-19 spread within a school. In September, the original reopen plan was replaced with a faster paced plan.

While citing “current trend projections" at board meetings, these projections were not made public. By moving the phased reopen dates up by weeks, district leadership caused schools and teachers to scramble to address the new changes. The September phased reopen plan also decreased the number of days between each new phase, not allowing sufficient time for potential COVID-19 school infections to be traced and contained. Due to changes made by the superintendent and Fulton County Board of Education with little warning and based on hand-selected data, teachers are not confident that county leadership will adhere to the current phased reopen plan and specifically that leadership will not respond to increasing case counts to return students to Universal Remote Learning when that is required by the data.

Request: Revised reopening schedule that is more in line with fellow metro-Atlanta school systems. Cobb County does not have any K-5 students returning to campus until Oct. 5; 9-12 students do not return until Nov. 5. DeKalb County, with lower new cases per capita than Fulton County, is not planning to return to complete, five-day, face-to-face instruction until Nov. 30. Atlanta Public Schools does not begin bringing students back into their facilities until Oct. 26.

Revising Fulton County's reopening plan to allow two weeks for data to be collected, a decision to be made, and the new phase announced with a week's warning will allow schools, teachers, parents, and students to plan and adjust to the new realities of COVID-19 community spread and to safely reopen our schools. We request assurances that we will move forward or backward in phases in response to the data and not political pressure. We request that if case levels return to levels greater than 150 per 100,000 that we return to the Universal Remote Learning phase. We further request that data be drawn from publicly available and verifiable sources that account for full community spread.

2. Fulton educators are equally outraged that school district leadership has both been unwilling to provide the funding necessary to effectively reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission and prohibited principals from paying for these potentially life-saving measures.

Principals have reported that school leadership has needlessly delayed the purchase of plexiglass barriers shown to defend against the dispersion of viral aerosol particles in the classroom environment and has halted all further orders of PPE with the exception of masks. The district leadership's refusal to provide for this and other critical personal protective equipment in a timely fashion poses an unacceptable level of risk for educators, students, and other school-based employees.

The cleaners which have been provided to teachers do not appear on the EPA's List N: Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-COV-2 and therefore are of dubious effectiveness and require unknown time to kill the virus. Use of such cleaners simply provides the placebo effect of feeling that one has cleaned without actually providing any safeguards against the virus or preventing its spread among our student population.

In truth, the only real way to have accurate information on the overall spread of the virus is to insist on universal testing of teachers and students on a regular basis. This is the only effective way to halt the spread of this virus in our school community.

Request: Students not be permitted in the building unless and until the PPE ordered by principals is approved and delivered. Cleaning products provided to all teachers which are on the EPA's List N: Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-Cov-2 in sufficient quantities and with necessary materials to properly deploy the chemicals. Universal testing of teachers and students on a regular basis.

3. Superintendent Looney has positioned himself as a talking head who distributes information, but is unwilling to solicit genuine teacher input or respond to teacher concerns. No meaningful teacher feedback has been sought. Few teachers have received responses to attempts at communication with Superintendent Looney despite district policy of response within 24 hours.

Responses that teachers have received have been dismissive at best. His unwillingness to listen to or engage in dialogue with teachers district-wide has stripped us of our voices and made actions such as the ones that we are now taking our only option.

Request: Superintendent Looney adhere to the same communication standards set for all other district employees with regard to email and phone messages. Further, we request that Superintendent Looney actively seek to engage with all teachers district-wide -- to listen and not just to speak. Prior to moving between each phase of the re-opening plan, we encourage Dr. Looney to hold virtual Town Hall meetings with the faculty of this distinct and to seriously engage with the concerns of his team.

As teachers, we again urge Fulton County School Leadership to uphold their responsibility to safeguard both students and staff by aligning themselves with evidence-based, scientific guidance as they determine policies during this difficult time; we demand safer conditions in our school buildings; and we insist that Superintendent Looney seek authentic dialogue with the teachers he serves -- relationships matter