Decision on Decatur students remaining virtual or returning to the classroom expected this week

Decatur Superintendent David Dude is planning on making a Sept. 18 announcement on whether or not K-12 students will return to the classroom after Sept. 25. Courtesy City Schools of Decatur

City Schools of Decatur has scheduled a Friday (Sept. 18) announcement on whether or not K-12 students will return to the classroom after Sept. 25. In a recent interview with the AJC, Superintendent David Dude explained that he is not leaning towards remaining in virtual learning, but he added it’s also not a “forgone conclusion . . . we’ll be going back full time like some other districts have done.”

During a Q-and-A (edited for clarity) he was asked what data is most critical in influencing the Sept. 18 decision.

“We’re looking at a number of things,” Dude said. "The [virus] reproduction rate is a very helpful number. It’s been under one for a little over two weeks which is very good. If it’s below one it means for any given person who has the virus, they’re transmitting it to fewer than one other person. That’s how you stop that exponential growth.

DeKalb County was dropping pretty steeply for several weeks . . . But I am concerned about what we’re going to see out of Labor Day. It’s still early to tell whether or not we’re going to see a bump.

AJC: It’s likely those Labor Day numbers won’t be known by Sept 18. Would you consider postponing your decision until you had a better idea regarding Labor Day’s impact on COVID-19.

Dude: No, I don’t want to hold the decision back. I think it’s really important for us to make a decision about our next phase, to figure out where we’re going next.

It sounds like there’s a good chance you’ll remain in virtual mode, at least for now.

Like I said, I’m not leaning one way or another. I do think it’s quite possible at least for the foreseeable future we’ll have to [remain in virtual]. I don’t know the length of that. We have never set a goal date for returning to the classroom. I have said before, we can’t just hope the virus is going to follow our plans. The transmission of the virus is what’s pushing our plans--we do not have a specific date for things to happen.

You’ve mostly ruled out a hybrid approach, or alternating classroom with virtual learning. But is it possible you could return to the classroom and then after a few weeks or, with an escalation of the virus, you’d return to virtual?

I think it would be very difficult for kids, teachers and families if we are constantly vacillating between different modes. The vast majority of students and parents have adapted to the virtual environment. What I don’t want to do is go back [to classrooms] too soon and then have to return to virtual either at the classroom or school level, or in the whole district.

I think going back and forth will be much more stressful and complicated than just continuing on the path we’re on until we are truly ready to go on to the next path.

There may be exceptions to that. There may come a time where we really feel we’re in the clear, we move back to the classroom and then a given classroom has an outbreak and we have to send them home. If that happens I do think we will be prepared to pivot back and forth if we have too. We just want to avoid it if at all possible.

Since you have three children in Decatur schools, you’re well aware of the stress on parents. What relief and support can you offer to parents?

We’ve tried to bring a lot of standardization to how we’re approaching teaching and learning. Last spring, part of what made it so difficult, everyone was having to make things up on the fly, about what tools they are using, how they are implementing them, etc.

We spent the summer figuring out how to standardize a given set of tools, create a schedule so it’s run like a regular school day, things like that. So a big part of that is helping parents. If you have multiple kids, what we’re seeing happening is that there are families who have started grouping their kids into what people are calling pods. By having a little more standardization to our tools and schedules that has helped [those pods] happen.

We’ve also made sure all the lunch hours are almost at the same time. As a parent, I don’t have to try and figure out who is eating when. Our food service is producing breakfast and lunches daily at [Decatur High, Talley Street Upper Elementary and Fifth Avenue Upper Elementary]. Three times a week I drive over to Talley to pick up lunches for my kids.

There are two ways to get meals. You can go to the school and pick them up, or go to your nearest bus stop and they’ll bring them on the bus. Parents can sign up either way for getting meals.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has granted waiver extension to all school districts. Can you explain how that works?

Through those waiver extensions all students can get free meals, not just those who get the free and reduced lunches. This started retroactively on [Sept. 7]. Basically, the federal government will be reimbursing us for all meals, which is awesome. Funding is valid until Dec. 31 or until the money runs out, whichever comes first.

I hope more parents will sign up and take advantage of that. The kids will get a good and healthy meal and [parents are saved] the time of preparation. Plus it will help support our food service as we keep these folks employed. I really hope we can get some people to sign up.