Clayton County Schools stick with virtual-only classes - for now

While several school districts in metro Atlanta are slowly bringing some students back to classrooms for in-person instruction, Clayton County leaders say they are sticking with virtual-only education for now.

Several members of the 55,000-student south metro Atlanta community’s school board made it clear at a Monday meeting that they are uncomfortable sending teachers and students to brick-and-mortar classrooms due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Right now, I am not for going back,” said Alieka Anderson, board vice chairwoman. “We need to look at things a little bit more. We need to see how this flu season is going to carry out.”

Clayton Schools leaders say they have been deluged with emails and calls from parents and faculty worried that the south metro district would feel pressure to follow Cobb, Fulton, Henry and other metro school systems in allowing students the option of returning to classrooms for in-person instruction.

Gov. Brian Kemp weighed in on the subject Tuesday, saying his administration has provided the tools to make going back easier, but that the decision to reopen is up to local leaders.

“I know that parents are frustrated," he said. "It’s pandemic politics in a lot of cases. There’s a lot of school systems going back, and they’re making it work. And I applaud them for that.”

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Leaders in the metro districts allowing some in-person learning say they have seen sufficient declines in COVID-19 numbers. Their hybrid schedules allow students to spend a few days at brick-and-mortar schools and the remaining days learning remotely.

For instance, Henry County Schools, which shares a border with Clayton, on Monday launched in-person classes twice a week. Fayette, which also shares a border with Clayton, began sending some students to in-person classes four days on Monday.

“My phone, my text messages, my email, as well as all the other board members, have blown up because one other county decided they were going back to school on September the 28th,” said Jessie Goree, Clayton County Schools board chairwoman.

Clayton has said it would switch to a hybrid plan if COVID-19 cases in the county fell below 100 cases per 100,000 people for three straight two-week periods. Infections hit that target for the first time in Clayton from Sept. 13-26 with 96 cases per 100,000 people. If that continues over the next four weeks, the district could look at a launching a hybrid schedule at the end of October.

“We want to see a trend of a decline of positive COVID cases,” said Charmine Johnson, Clayton Schools assistant superintendent for school leadership & improvement. “We want to make sure our community feels safe, our teachers feel safe and our parents feel safe sending their students back.”

The district has been cautious, leaders said, because its student body is 70% Black and 22% Latino, two groups hard hit by the coronavirus. Clayton County also has a disproportionate population of front-line workers in such industries as hotels, restaurants and health care, which have greater exposure to the risks of COVID-19 infections.

“We serve a disproportionately vulnerable population,” said board member Jasmine Bowles. “It’s important for us to be thinking about that.”

While the district waits for infection rates to fall, it will survey parents about their preferences on returning their children to school, Superintendent Morcease Beasley said. But he warned that it won’t make the decision easier.

“This is one of the most complex issues that we’ve ever had to deal with," he said. "Whatever we decide it will not please everyone.”

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.