Whether COVID fatigue or upset parents, school districts plan reopenings

Teachers, parents and students, including Beverly Beyer, a science teacher at Renfroe Middle School with 15 years of experience, protest in front of Decatur City School Headquarters on Trinity Place on Friday, Oct, 9, 2020, in response to the district's plan to return teachers to schools in an effort to get back to in-person learning.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Teachers, parents and students, including Beverly Beyer, a science teacher at Renfroe Middle School with 15 years of experience, protest in front of Decatur City School Headquarters on Trinity Place on Friday, Oct, 9, 2020, in response to the district's plan to return teachers to schools in an effort to get back to in-person learning. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Most metro school districts pledged to follow the science and the data in deciding whether to reopen for face-to-face classes. Yet, many are seeking to reopen buildings even as infections, community spread, and death rates reach record levels in Georgia.

It may be that COVID fatigue has made people desperate for a return to some semblance of normalcy. Or, districts may face increasing pressure from parents who fear their kids are suffering socially and academically from remote learning.

A new analysis by researchers at the University of Oxford of COVID-19 data from 41 countries identified three government measures that significantly lowered virus transmission: school and university closures, restricting gatherings to no more than 10 people and shutting down businesses. “We found a large effect for closing schools and universities in conjunction, which was remarkably robust across different model structures, variations in the data, and epidemiological assumptions,” concluded the Oxford researchers in the study.

Despite warnings by the top U.S. infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, that the country could, in the wake of the December holidays, experience a “surge upon a surge,” several districts have vowed to maintain plans for in-person classes.

Last week, some of those plans hit a few snags.

Gwinnett County Public Schools moved to all virtual classes this week due to rising numbers of COVID-19 cases and employee absences. In a statement, Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said, “The reality is that our school system — like our community and the state — is feeling the results of the holidays and winter break.”

The district received 125 new reports about staff who tested positive, were suspected of having COVID and were being tested, or had been identified as close contacts in a single day last week. These cases brought Gwinnett’s total number of staff out of school or work to 785, 460 of whom were teachers.

“While we fully intend to honor the choices our families made for their children in regard to receiving instruction in-person or digitally, the bottom line is that we must have the staff on hand in order to be able to do so,” said Wilbanks.

Cobb, too, shifted all its schools to remote learning this week in response to rising COVID-19 numbers. And the DeKalb County School District delayed today’s planned resumption of in-person learning to mid-February. Staff will start returning Feb. 3 if the county’s positivity rate, now at 14.7%, falls to 10% or lower, said DeKalb Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris.

County trends are so worrisome that the city of Decatur issued this communication to residents last week:

“Georgia’s COVID-19 case rates are climbing following the holiday season. Recent data show that our current case rate per 100,000 residents in Georgia is the highest it has been since the start of the pandemic and at least 60% higher than the summer surge. ... As cases rise, ICU and hospital capacities are struggling to meet the demand. In our hospital region, over 88% of ICU beds are in use. If the situation continues to worsen, it will become harder for hospitals to provide care to every patient in need.”

Yet, the City Schools of Decatur begins Tuesday bringing back pre-K-5 students under a hybrid schedule. At a school board meeting a week ago, board member Jana Johnson-Davis said, “Teachers will get sick. Staff members will get sick, and my concern is that they will not be able to go to our local hospital to get the care that they need.”

(Newly elected board chair Tasha White, participating remotely, asked the current chair to lead the meeting after announcing she had COVID-19 and lacked the stamina to run the meeting.)

In public comments, about a dozen Decatur parents called into the meeting, most speaking against reopening. “I want to know how many teacher deaths or staff deaths are acceptable to you,” said parent Susan Camp. “Because for me, it is zero.”

Atlanta Public Schools commences its phased-in return to in-person instruction next week, starting with pre-K-second grade and some special education students. As with most metro districts, Atlanta offered families the option to remain virtual; about two-thirds of students enrolled at traditional APS schools have chosen to stay virtual.

As in many other cities, Atlanta is seeing a higher proportion of white parents opting to send their children face-to-face. The APS elementary schools with greater than 60% of the students planning to return next week include Morningside, Sarah Smith, Jackson, and Morris Brandon. Those schools have the city’s largest enrollments of white students.

“I hear some say that virtual instruction is hurting our most vulnerable students, but the large majority of families opting to return are actually not in this group,” wrote APS educator Tracey Nance Pendley, who is also Georgia’s Teacher of the Year, in a Facebook commentary. “For example, many Title I schools in my district have 20% wanting to return while the more privileged schools on the north side have approximately 80% returning.”

While reopening proponents cite the inequitable impact of remote learning on Black and Latino families, some parents of color are leery of sending their children back because of COVID-19 risks. Their fears are not unfounded: Latino and Black Americans have a COVID-19 death rate of double or more that of white and Asian Americans.

When New York City recently reopened its public schools, white students represented 25% of those returning, despite being only 16% of overall enrollment. Chicago opened last week and saw the same disparity: Less than a third of Black parents opted for school with face-to-face instruction for their kids. But white students, who are 11% of the Chicago district, account for 23% of those who returned.

In a virtual parent town hall Thursday night, the DeKalb Schools superintendent acknowledged the deep and emotional divide over face-to-face classes. “There are parents who want their children back in school as soon as possible and parents who do not want their children to return,” said Watson-Harris.

Parent responses confirmed that rupture. “This bait-and-switch game being played by the school district is unconscionable; 98% of the school districts in Georgia have figured out a way to provide a safe, in-person option for students since August,” complained one parent. Yet another said, “Thank you for valuing teachers, staff, students, families and our DeKalb community. Thank you for staying virtual until conditions are safer for all.”

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