‘A harsh reality’ as push to restart school face-to-face fails

News cameras look on as Superintendant Dr. Mike Looney arrives Monday for a press conference announcing school closures after a Bear Creek Middle School teacher had a confirmed case of COVID-19. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

School districts across metro Atlanta have spent the last few months working diligently toward starting the school year with students in seats.

Instead, most will start the school year online when classes begin next month.

The decision ultimately was made by the coronavirus. Georgia’s infection rate has risen sharply in recent weeks. Surveys asking parents, teachers and students about their wishes came before the state began breaking the daily infection rate record, but still largely showed many people were afraid to see classrooms populated.

“A harsh reality came,” Cobb County School District Superintendent Chris Ragsdale said Thursday. “There’s high spread. [The decision is] going to make some people happy. It’s going to make some … not happy. At the end of the day, we had to make a decision based on the health and safety of our staff and students.”

Many districts have delayed the start of the school year by at least a week to better prepare. Other factors pushing many districts to start the year virtually include testing delays and concerns that many agencies following the pandemic are only offering districts guidance to use in making reopening decisions.

Officials at Gwinnett County Public Schools, the state’s largest district with about 180,000 students, said Monday that school will begin virtually when classes resume next month.

The stakes are high for school districts, one of the largest economic engines that also provide mental and physical health for students, as well as a source for nutrition for many, especially those from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

“I think the challenge we face both in schools, businesses, is we’re in the midst of a pandemic, viral infectious agent we don’t understand, we don’t have a vaccine or effective treatment,” said Saul B. Helman of Guidehouse, a global consulting firm that has advised businesses during past epidemics and pandemics. “All that we have is social distancing. That’s the most effective weapon. The challenge for schools, I think, is managing social distancing in an environment that is not made for that.”

Students also are seen as the largest carrier of germs. While studies indicate those without underlying health conditions are affected the least by the coronavirus, their presence could put in older teachers and staffers with pre-existing conditions at risk.

“For kids, it’s more like a flu season,” said Thomas R Frieden, former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who now runs the Resolve to Save Lives initiative. “On the one hand, it’s less likely. But they do get infected and they could spread it to others. They can create an outbreak there.”

Ragsdale said he’s been wrestling with the decision to delay in-person learning, at least at the start of the year, for some time. The Cobb County School District, with about 112,000 students, initially offered families the choice of in-person instruction or virtual learning, as many families still are not comfortable with interaction as the coronavirus pandemic rages on. Last month, the district’s school board delayed the start of the school year to give more time to prepare for its new normal.

“I’ve seen the data coming in. It has not gotten better,” he said. “Nobody wants to be back in school and face-to-face more than I do. I don’t know what to say to that parent or those students looking forward to coming back.

“But health and safety trumps all of that right now.”

Tywanna Bailey-Britt said her son, Randy Britt, had opted to attend face-to-face classes at Gwinnett County’s Norcross High School, where he will be an incoming senior. Now, with the district announcing it will start the school year online, Bailey-Britt is looking into how to make distance learning work better for Randy.

“I was kind of bummed by that, she said. “He’s like ‘I really need to be in a classroom.’ He feels he needs to be in a classroom because that’s what he needs to be successful.

“I guess we’ll just figure stuff out.”

‘Semblance of normalcy'

Immediately after being sworn in as the newest DeKalb County School District superintendent on July 1, Cheryl Watson-Harris said she met with the district’s COVID-19 Task Force. Before announcing Monday that the district would start the year virtually, Watson-Harris said plans were being made to implement a hybrid learning model based off survey data.

“Although we knew the students were excited and wanted to return to some semblance of normalcy … it was really looking at the data and determining what was contextually appropriate for DeKalb,” Watson-Harris said of her 98,000-student district.

Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Morcease J. Beasley said the district’s reopening plan included “methodical” data collection, including surveys from the community and staff. The success of the plan was evident, Beasley said, when the district went from initially offering a hybrid model through which the school year would begin, which became online-only with no drama.

“We had a framework,” he said. “There’s no perfect model in situations for this pandemic. There are pros and cons each way. We had to decide which [plan] we could live with.”

Rivera said Marietta City Schools officials began working in May to define how it would reopen schools, with the aim to get information to parents and staffers with enough time to prepare for how those plans would affect them.

“We owe it to our families and staff to be proactive … yet things change by the week,” he said. “That is a burden. This is not about what times the buses are going to run. This is about implications for student education.”

A week after the district announced plans in late June that did not require students to wear masks, the Georgia Department of Public Health announced students should wear masks. Rivera said the district updated plans then requiring its nearly 9,000 students to wear masks.

Meanwhile, coronavirus infections continued to rise.

“The document we pushed in late June, we had been building that since early May,” he said. “Our principals and central office staff have been collaborating since early May. We adjusted HVAC, hired additional custodians. We had gone to the far extreme.

“Then, boom.”

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