Atlanta Public Schools to delay in-person return for older grades

Atlanta Public Schools on Friday announced a change in its reopening plan, delaying the return for older students. AJC FILE PHOTO

Atlanta Public Schools on Friday announced a change in its reopening plan, delaying the return for older students. AJC FILE PHOTO

Atlanta Public Schools will delay the return of in-person learning for students in third through 12th grades.

The district announced late Friday that it will change its plan to reopen school buildings.

Atlanta’s youngest students, those in prekindergarten through second grade, as well as special education students will still have the option of returning to classrooms Monday.

But the district pushed back the return date for older students as the number of COVID-19 cases surges.

Students in third through 12th grade had been scheduled to return to buildings the first week of February.

Now, APS says students in third through fifth grades will go back Feb. 8. Middle and high school students will return Feb. 16.

Superintendent Lisa Herring called the delay “an important and necessary step.”

“This slower pace will allow more time to intensify and add to our current mitigation strategies and plan in anticipation of COVID-19 surveillance testing to be provided in our schools,” she said in a written statement.

Officials have said that online learning is particularly challenging for young children, who benefit from being in the same room as their teachers.

Atlanta, Clayton and DeKalb are among the few Georgia school systems that have remained entirely online since mid-March.

APS previously proposed reopening in October, but decided against it as the number of coronavirus cases climbed.

In December, Herring said buildings would reopen starting in late January unless a federal or state mandate prevented them from doing so. But some parents and teachers have called for APS to reconsider, saying it’s not safe for employees and students. They pointed out the virus is spreading much faster now than it was in the fall, the first time APS backed off plans to resume in-person learning.

In mid-October, the Fulton County incidence rate, which measures the number of new cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period, was about 140. On Friday, the local rate was 745 cases per 100,000.

In recent weeks, APS officials have de-emphasized reliance on that data point to make reopening decisions. They said that, despite the higher case numbers, buildings could reopen because mask mandates and social distancing would mitigate the spread of the virus.

They said schools had a chance to test those safety measures on a smaller scale in November, when schools began providing limited, in-person academic and social services to students. They also pointed to other factors, like the start of the vaccine rollout, that gave them confidence to reopen.

One third of Atlanta students enrolled in the district’s traditional schools want to return to buildings, with the rest opting to remain enrolled in virtual classes.