Decatur pushes classroom learning back to after the new year

Decatur Superintendent David Dude announced Tuesday night that Decatur schools won't return to in-person classroom learning until at least Jan. 5. Courtesy City Schools of Decatur
Decatur Superintendent David Dude announced Tuesday night that Decatur schools won't return to in-person classroom learning until at least Jan. 5. Courtesy City Schools of Decatur

City Schools of Decatur Superintendent David Dude announced Tuesday night (Oct. 13) that the district is delaying the return of in-person classroom learning to at least Jan. 5. The announcement came early during a school board meeting that lasted over five hours and featured nearly two hours of often blistering public comment.

In late September CSD announce a staggered plan for returning to the classroom. In that iteration grades pre-K, Kindergarten, 3, 6 and 9 would return Nov. 2-6, grades 1, 4, 7 and 10 on Nov. 9-13 and grades 2,5, 8, 11 and 12 returning Nov. 16-20.

The precise language of Dude’s Tuesday recommendation, approved by the board, is that students return to the classroom on “a date to be determined, no earlier than Jan 5,” and that teachers and others “who are able to work virtually,” originally scheduled to return Oct 19 will also return no earlier than Jan. 5. Whether or not the return includes a staggered format remains undetermined.

CSD is one of the state’s few public-school districts that hasn’t returned to the classroom. But almost immediately after the September announcement Dude and administrative officials received clamorous blowback. Indeed, in the past two weeks there have been two protests outside the district’s central office featuring angry parents and some teachers opposing the November reopening.

During a post-meeting interview with the AJC Tuesday night Dude acknowledged these played a significant role in delaying a return. He said he knew of one teacher who has resigned, but that 100, or about 20 percent of CSD’s K-12 teaching staff, has asked for “accommodations.” These ranged, he said, from "as simple as ‘I need more shields installed in my classroom,’ or could be as complex as ‘I cannot go to school in person.’

“Many of the 100 said that they cannot be in contact with students,” he added. "Among the reasons are fear of catching [coronavirus], their personal health, their age and, for some, they’re caretakers for their parents.

“Obviously,” he said, “from a staffing perspective and in a district as small as ours (about 6,000 K-12 students) that presents massive challenges.”

But the superintendent insisted the driving force behind the delay was the increasingly-worrisome data and the need for more time to, in his words, "evaluate more objective and predictable metrics.

“For a long time,” he told the AJC, “the number of [COVID 19] cases were dropping, but now it’s leveling out and that makes me nervous. There are a lot of variables out there that we have to take into account, like heading into winter and the flu season. The last thing you want to see are the cases leveling out.”

Despite Dude’s announcement of a delay until at least January, the board fielded 45 public-comment callers, many of whom identified themselves as doctors or medical professionals, and who gave scathing evaluations of the original November return, of the board and of Dude himself. One caller called that decision “heartless,” while another said there’s a “broken trust between the board and teachers.” Another added that “the district doesn’t take it seriously that Black children get COVID at a higher rate.”

All of Tuesday’s callers favored remaining in virtual learning, but this by no means reflects the entire district. Indeed, the pro-virtual sentiment may emanate more from wealthier citizens who can afford at-home help or who have at least one parent staying home. A September survey that was far more inclusive --over 4,000 respondents--showed an almost 50-50 split between those who favored a classroom return and those who don’t.

More than any other time over the last seven months—Decatur classrooms were shuttered on March 13—Dude’s words and demeanor Tuesday reflected the daily frustrations and strain of the COVID era. He opened the meeting by saying that, "Like so many communities we are a community bitterly divided over this virus and how we should respond to it.

“. . . Lack of leadership from the highest government institutions has caused chaos and left the local leaders scrambling to build an airplane while flying it,” he said. "Only to find out months later we didn’t need an airplane we needed a submarine. Or spaceship. We’re still not sure.

". . . [We are] largely left to figure this out on our own as various experts battle each other on the 24-hour news cycle, and politicians meddle in scientific matters to further their political interests. . .Furthermore, in the hopes of saving the economy businesses were prioritized over schools. We absolutely could’ve gotten this virus under control over the summer. But we instead prioritized the short-term gains of opening bars, beaches and bowling alleys over the long-term gains of opening schools and nothing else.

“. . .No doubt about it,” he concluded, “the school students of 2020 are going to be impacted by this for the rest of their lives. Not only are they going to be paying our financial debts, but they’re going to paying academic debts.”

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