Decatur Superintendent discusses next week’s return to the classroom

City Schools of Decatur announced on Dec. 9 that a portion of its pre-K through fifth grade students would return to the classroom on Jan 19, and that some in grades 6 through 12 might return as early as two weeks after that.

The district reiterated the Pre-K-5 plans in an announcement earlier this week but gave little additional information, including how many students are returning. The following interview with Superintendent David Dude took place in mid-December, right before CSD shut down for a three-week holiday break. He touches some on how the district will monitor COVID-19 once students return, along with the divisiveness this decision—to return or not return to the classroom—has caused, not only in the community but among the five school board members.

Dude’s responses have been edited for clarity and space.

AJC: In returning students to the classroom, you’ve said that you’re not putting as high a priority on community-wide metrics as you have for many months. This stance has provoked controversy among some CSD parents. Can you briefly elaborate on yours and the board’s reasoning?

Dude: We will use metrics to inform the future phases [after the Pre K-5 return]. But we feel really strongly that we’ve gone so far with mitigations that we are comfortable with opening Jan. 19 regardless of what the various [community] metrics are. Once the older kids come back, at that point we’re not able to do things like the small-group cohorting [as with grades Pre K-5], and we’ll want to start incorporating metrics at that point.

(Note: In this week’s announcement CSD stated that, “Although community spread of COVID-19 has increased, we remain confident that our mitigation efforts will provide a safe learning environment for staff and students. Schools are less likely to be a place where COVID-19 is transmitted, and we can implement mitigation measures effectively. . . We continue to monitor the situation and will be flexible as needed.”)

AJC: What are the procedures if a student or staffer tests positive?

Dude: We don’t want to rush going back in a way that’s likely going to result in lots of quarantining. Yes, we’re still going to have quarantines, they are going to have to happen because there are still people getting coronavirus in the community. We can quarantine people and shut down a class, we just don’t feel at this point like it will be a massive disruption.

As far as shutting down an entire school, to do that we are looking at an outbreak. The definition we’re using for an “outbreak” is if you have two positive cases at a school, and you can’t link them together, then you consider that an outbreak until you can figure out what’s going on. That’s where you really dig in and figure out what happened, like are we implementing all our mitigation procedures, or was something not as effective as we thought, or anything else we could’ve done differently, that kind of thing.

At that point we’re closing down the school and sending everybody home, not just the kids who you know had contact.

You have the year’s first board meeting on Jan. 12, but in the past two meetings there has been palpable disagreement among members about when and how to return to the classroom.

I think with the board it’s reflective on how challenging this is. They actually agree on a lot more than they disagree on. It’s often just the very specific details where they have different perspectives.

In other challenges of the past there is often a clear path forward. The problem with [COVID-19], it doesn’t lend itself to that kind of problem solving. It doesn’t lend itself to, “you give a little here, you give a little there and we’ll meet in the middle.” Traditionally we would turn to some robust, decades-long research and scientific understanding to say, “well, here’s a path forward.” But with COVID things are changing all the time. There’s still a lot of research happening right now, and so you see things change, and they’re going to continue changing as we learn more about the virus.

The last three board meetings, October, November and December, have featured over 100 public comments total, largely from parents, many of them pretty raw and sometimes even personal towards yourself and board members, no matter where they stand on returning or not returning students to the classroom. Does this intense vitriol surprise you?

No, it’s not surprising the comments we get. There has been a shift over the last several years to this mentality that “you’re either with us or against us. You’re either on my side or you’re the enemy.” I think everything that happened in 2020 has brought that to the forefront—”you either agree with me or I’m going to attack you.” But it’s not unique to us locally at all. We’re seeing it all over.

The bottom line, as you’ve said for months, any decision you make is going to leave a certain group of folks disgruntled, if not downright angry.

I fully understand why people are frustrated. There is no decision that is going to be popular across the board. What we’ve tried to do is balance the needs of students and the needs of staff and what the science and mitigation measures tell us what we can do, then make a decision and move forward. One reason this has taken so long, we listen to our employees more than a lot of school districts do. We really do care about what our employees think. We are not a district that tends to say, “our way or the highway.”