Parents question Atlanta school board over back-to-classroom plan

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Herring speaks at a gathering in Atlanta in June 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Three and a half hours into a presentation about how Atlanta Public Schools plans to resume in-person learning later this month, the board chairman paused. Even a marathon meeting wouldn’t answer every question from concerned parents, he acknowledged.

Parents must decide by Oct. 12 if they want their child to continue with virtual learning or return to the classroom. But part-way through Monday’s lengthy board meeting, Jason Esteves levelled with parents.

“There are questions that even I as a parent want answered that I think it needs to be clear to parents that they are not going to get prior to Oct. 12,” he said.

Among the most pressing: Will my child’s teacher change? If my child stays in online classes will they be with a different students?

Officials said they can’t answer those questions until they find out how many students and teachers plan to return to school buildings. The Atlanta school board has said that Superintendent Lisa Herring will decide how and when to reopen school buildings, which closed in mid-March amid the pandemic.

The reopening plan calls for four-day-a-week, face-to-face instruction to resume Oct. 26 for prekindergarten through fifth grade and some special education students. Families also can choose to continue with virtual learning. Students in sixth through 12th grades could resume in-person learning in November.

The plan will hinge largely on the number of COVID-19 cases. The district’s leading indicator is the number of cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period. Officials want that number to show minimal to moderate spread of the virus, defined as six to 100 cases.

Officials will look at health data on Oct. 16 to decide if the district can indeed reopen 10 days later.

“We have committed to a call-it date,” said Katika Lovett, assistant superintendent of student services.

Although the board spent hours Monday listening to Herring’s presentation, they did not vote or request any major changes. Instead, they asked questions and listened to parent feedback.

APS released the updated proposal late Friday, triggering a wave of opposition that surged into the Facebook comment section of the board’s livestreamed meeting Monday. Viewers posted thousands of messages, expressed concern for teachers' safety and frustration at the district’s changing plans.

About two weeks ago, the district proposed bringing back fewer grades for only two days per week.

Herring said she expanded her initial recommendation after looking at the downward trend of local COVID-19 cases. She said she also listened to feedback and examined scheduling challenges.

Over the weekend, the group “We Demand Safety APS” circulated an online letter protesting the enlarged scale of the reopening plan. Sara Totonchi, an APS parent who helped organize the effort, said 3,500 people signed that letter, including about 1,400 APS staffers, many of whom did so anonymously.

“It is dangerous to ask so many staff and students to return to close contact in school buildings,” she told board members.

Some who oppose the expanded reopening plan believe the district caved to pressure from parents who campaigned for additional in-person options and put up a Midtown billboard touting the message “all kids all day.” But Herring said she has listened to all sides.

Online learning has been especially hard for the district’s youngest and most vulnerable students, she said.

“We are losing them,” Herring said. “We have a responsibility to start to do as much as we can, as safely as possible to not completely lose them before the close of this semester.”

A billboard urging Atlanta Public Schools to give parents more options to send their child back to in-person classes is displayed in Midtown Atlanta on October 1, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Several critics faulted the district for surveying employees about their ability to return before expanding the plan to include more grades and more days of in-person learning. They called for APS to reissue those questionnaires. Skye Duckett, the district’s chief human resources officers, said employees can request telework or other accommodations, such as emergency paid leave.

Confusing communication from the district has hindered trust, said parent Michael Waller.

“This is a relationship with parents and teachers that’s going to continue beyond the pandemic, and there was an opportunity here that was lost,” he told the board.

Board member Cynthia Briscoe Brown said this should be a time when everyone works together.

“What could have been an opportunity here for us to listen and learn from each other has devolved into people taking sides: North vs. south, poor vs. rich, technologically literate vs. not connected, black vs. white, right vs. left, can’t-afford-a-doctor vs. good health insurance and— all of them —us versus them. But there’s only one side and that’s the side of our children and our employees,” she said.

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