Atlanta school buildings prepare to reopen in late January

Atlanta Public Schools is moving forward with plans to reopen school buildings starting in late January. AJC FILE PHOTO

Atlanta Public Schools is moving forward with plans to reopen school buildings starting in late January. AJC FILE PHOTO

Atlanta Public Schools is pushing ahead with plans to resume in-person classes later this month for the first time since March, even as COVID-19 cases surge and teachers express concern.

At a Monday school board meeting, district officials discussed the reopening plan that could bring more than 13,000 students back to school buildings starting Jan. 25. That’s about one third of the students who attend the district’s traditional schools.

The January date marks the second time APS has proposed bringing students back. In October, the district backed off a plan to reopen buildings, citing a rise in cases. This time around, a couple thousand more students indicated they want to return even though the virus is spreading much faster.

Board Chairman Jason Esteves said academic and attendance data show that face-to-face learning needs to resume, and that postponing will harm the most vulnerable students. He said mitigation strategies, such as mask requirements and social distancing, will reduce the risk.

Superintendent Lisa Herring said she’s made reopening decisions with “thoughtfulness and carefulness” and “rooted in safety and health.”

Still, Atlanta’s plans to reopen, even as some nearby school systems announce delays, prompted concern.

Tracey Pendley, named the 2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year, said she’s seen how hard it is to get young students to keep their masks on and stay socially distanced from classmates.

She returned in the fall to Burgess-Peterson Academy, where she works as an instructional coach, helping with an in-person intervention program. District officials point to that program, which required all schools to provide students with limited face-to-face services, as one reason they think schools are prepared to hold classes.

But Pendley said it’s difficult for elementary students to consistently follow safety rules. She referred comment to a recent Facebook post, where she wrote about her fear that students and their families will get sick.

“Even for the students who return, instruction will continue to be largely virtual because teachers must continue instructing their students who are learning from home,” she wrote. “I’m scared that I’ll get sick and not be able to be there for my two daughters and for my students. I’m scared that I might unintentionally get others sick.”

The group We Demand Safety APS, made up of parents and school employees, issued a statement Tuesday calling for the district to delay reopening until teachers are vaccinated. The group said local COVID-19 cases are eight times the rate they were in October and healthcare facilities are “nearing capacity.”

Georgia teachers will receive vaccinations as part of “phase 1B” of the vaccine rollout, which has not yet begun. Atlanta teachers are scheduled to return to school buildings next week to prepare for in-person learning.

At many schools, fewer than 30% of students plan to come back, with the rest opting to remain virtual. APS officials expect some who said they want to return will end up staying home, reducing numbers further.

Only a handful of elementary schools have greater than 60% of the students planning to return. Those include Morningside and E. Rivers with 61%, Sarah Smith with 68%, Jackson with 78%, and Morris Brandon with 80%.

Leaders at every school created reopening plans specific to their buildings and needs.

“Everyone has worked really, really hard to ensure that safety was at the forefront of our planning. These are not haphazard plans,” said Chief of Schools Anita Williams in an interview Tuesday.

Through an open-records request, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained draft versions of the plans for the schools with the highest percentage of returning students. The documents offer a glimpse into the level of detail schools are considering.

Morris Brandon Elementary will provide desk partitions for students and place directional arrows in the hallways and staircases.

“Dots will also be placed throughout the hallway to indicate proper social distancing while students are lining up,” the plan states.

E. Rivers will close its media center but still allow children to check out books. The school will urge students to have two sets of school supplies, one for home and one for school.

At Jackson Elementary, the parent-teacher group is looking to purchase individual air purifying units for classrooms, the plan states.

Williams said each school is expected to post its reopening plan on its website.

Parents who want schoolhouses to reopen said the district has taken too long to resume face-to-face learning and urged officials to stick to the plan.

“What our children have lost during the school closure of the past several months may never be recovered, but there is a chance to salvage what remains of the school year,” said David Hayes, chairman of the Committee for APS Progress, in a statement.