Atlanta school district delays reopening classrooms

Atlanta Public Schools plans to announce a decision today on whether or not to reopen school buildings. AJC FILE PHOTO/Alyssa Pointer

Atlanta Public Schools plans to announce a decision today on whether or not to reopen school buildings. AJC FILE PHOTO/Alyssa Pointer

Atlanta Public Schools will not resume in-person classes until at least January, the superintendent announced Friday.

Officials previously planned to allow some special education students and students in prekindergarten through fifth grade to return to school buildings on Oct. 26. But that step was contingent on the number of COVID-19 cases.

Superintendent Lisa Herring cited an increase in cases as the reason for delaying the reopening. In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, she said the health and safety of students and employees was her top consideration.

“This is a heavy, Herculean weight for any superintendent, and I know that I am not alone,” she said. “I just want our families and our staff to know that these decisions are not just randomly made.”

Reactions to the decision ranged from relief to frustration. Roughly a quarter of students had planned to return to classrooms, if permitted, with the rest opting to remain virtual. Herring acknowledged that continuing classes online only for at least the next few months would upset some parents.

“School is still in session, and this decision is not permanent and forever," she said.

Parents who want students to have the option of returning pointed to other metro Atlanta districts that have opened. They also cited the social, emotional and academic benefits of returning, and a petition from one group gathered more than 2,900 signatures.

Joel Iverson, a parent of three elementary students, said the decision is a shame. He said it goes against what many experts have said is in the best interest of children’s education, particularly for the very youngest students who struggle with virtual learning.

“It just seems like such a blow to so many kids, so many families,” he said, noting students have been out of school buildings for more than 200 days. “It just doesn’t seem like much weight is given to the kids and to their education.”

Grady High School teacher Christie Lowell said she was concerned about the safety of her fellow teachers and students’ family members who are older or fall into high-risk health categories should in-person classes resume. The district had been considering allowing middle and high school students to return next month.

Lowell also questioned how she would teach her biology and physics students online and in-person simultaneously, which the district had said teachers may be required to do. Even if students returned, they wouldn’t be able to share microscopes and other equipment in science labs, she said.

“We feel like we were listened to and that they heard our concerns,” she said. “Hopefully, by January, transmission will be down, and we will be able to get some more safety measures in place.”

The district’s decision to postpone the reopening aligned with pleas from the group “We Demand Safety APS.” The group formed after the district announced earlier this month an expanded reopening plan that included more grade levels and more days of in-person learning than officials initially proposed.

Allison Glass, a parent and member of the group, said the district should use the next few months to consult with experts and plan for contact-tracing, testing and other safety measures.

“We really hope that this extra time will allow for people to really come together and come up with a really robust and comprehensive plan so that we can … get folks into buildings,” she said.

While roughly a quarter of students indicated they want to return, there are parts of the district where the interest is higher.

In the North Atlanta cluster, which includes North Atlanta High School and the elementary and middle schools that feed into it, 42% of students planned to come back, according to data provided by APS.

School board member Nancy Meister, who represents North Atlanta area, suggested Thursday that APS roll out “a pilot program in limited schools with limited grades for families that opt for face to face.”

Herring said the district will explore ways to provide some level of in-person support before January for the district’s most vulnerable students. But she said such moves would have to be done with equity in mind.

In making the decision, APS officials looked most closely at the local “incidence rate,” or number of new cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period. The target to reopen school buildings is less than 100 cases per 100,000 residents.

That rate, as calculated daily by the Georgia Department of Public Health, has trended higher since early October. It reached 139 cases per 100,000 Fulton County residents on Friday.