DeKalb continues virtual-only classes as county’s COVID-19 rates soar



DeKalb County school leaders say COVID-19 infection rates in the east metro Atlanta community are pacing far above where they need to be to allow a return to in-person classes.

During a town hall meeting Thursday, the district said the county recently recorded 201 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. To return students to school buildings, the district has said infection cases per 100,000 people must fall below 100 cases over 14 consecutive days.

“Today’s alert was quite alarming," Stacy Stepney, the school system’s chief academic officer, said of a report she gets daily of COVID-19 cases. "This declares us in the high category.”

The news comes as some DeKalb parents have been vocal about their desire for the district to allow face-to-face classes for those who want them, especially as they watch neighboring communities in Cobb, Gwinnett and Fulton counties offer in-person instruction in recent weeks.

Altanta Public Schools and Clayton County Schools are continuing with virtual-only education for now.

A survey of DeKalb parents' views on in-person classes found parents of elementary school students were most supportive of a return to school, with 48% of roughly 23,500 families responding saying they want their children back in buildings. The district said it is extending the deadline for parents to state the learning preference for their children to Thursday.

“We all have to be flexible and patient during this time,” Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris said, adding that there is no blueprint to guide the district. “I think what we’ve seen is that we have very polarizing views throughout our system on whether we should be doing back, whether we should be staying virtual.”

The school system laid out steps it has taken to make schools safer when students return, including cleaning HVAC systems, installing plexiglass buffers in reception areas and adding hand sanitizing stations throughout all school buildings.

The district also said it continues to get laptops and Wi-Fi hot spots into the hands of students who need them and that teachers will work with students to make up missed assignments if their homes lost power during severe storms that knocked out power to much of metro Atlanta last week.

Hundreds of parents participated in the Thursday town hall, asking questions ranging from how to keep children engaged when learning virtually to whether students were getting enough instruction time.

Watson-Harris said communication is critical at this time. She said the district hopes to host more town halls with parents and to continue correspondence, such as her weekly newsletter, to create greater dialogue.

The district’s response to education needs during the pandemic is expected to be widely discussed at Monday’s board of education meeting.

“We have been very clear from the beginning,” she said. “While we’re in the midst of this pandemic and this unprecedented time, that the safety of our students and staff would be our number one priority and kind of the north star that we use to guide our work, our plans and our promises to the larger community.”