DeKalb County school board leery of quick return to in-person classes

Cheryl Watson-Harris superintendent of the DeKalb County School District. (HANDOUT PHOTO)
Cheryl Watson-Harris superintendent of the DeKalb County School District. (HANDOUT PHOTO)

DeKalb Schools pitched a plan Monday that could bring students and staff back to brick-and-mortar classrooms as early as mid-October if COVID-19 cases in the county drop significantly for a sustained amount of time.

But district leaders faced forceful resistance from the board of education for suggesting the possibility of a return to classes next month.

“I’m not for this,” board member Joyce Morley said during the meeting where the plan was unveiled. “I’m not for this at all. I have a lot of concerns. I’m just not for this early return. . . . I will not have blood on my hands.”

Board member Allyson Gevertz agreed. “We can’t ignore that our teachers are more at risk,” she said. “We can’t bring them back until it’s safe to bring them back.”

The almost 94,000-student district pitched a plan that would bring teachers back to class for two days a week as early as Oct. 5 and students for one day a week on Oct. 19.

But for that to happen, COVID-19 numbers in DeKalb County must fall below 100 infections a day for 14 consecutive days. If the number goes higher at any point during that time, the district will start its day count over.

That left some board members skeptical the district could meet the timetable suggested.

“We’re not going back 'til January,” board member Stan Jester said in reference to the criteria.

As of Monday, DeKalb County had 124 cases per 100,000 residents over the past two weeks, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. The county, which has more than 793,000 residents, has 17,610 cases of infections, according to the department.

By comparison, Gwinnett County ― the state’s biggest school system — had 164 cases per 100,000 residents over the two weeks ending Sept. 14. (Gwinnett has a population of 971,000 people).

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DeKalb becomes the latest district in metro Atlanta to create a plan under which school systems could inch toward a return to in-person classes. School systems in Clayton, Cobb, Henry and other counties are hoping that the slowing COVID-19 infection rates in Georgia means it may be safe to allow some face-to-face education in local schools.

DeKalb Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris told the board that because of falling COVID-19 infection rates in the county, it would have “been irresponsible for us not to create a back-to-school plan."

“We will not begin until the numbers are in that safe range,” Watson-Harris said.

DeKalb started the school year with online-only classes last month. About 83,7000 students or 89% of the district are logging in daily for instruction, the school system said Monday.

Under the proposed in-person education plan, parents could choose for their children to continue virtual learning while other students for in-person classes.

“We are in unprecedented times,” Watson-Harris said. “Parents will still have the option of virtual instruction.”

The district laid out a number of safety measures it will undertake when students return to school. For instance, students will sit at alternating desks in classes and classrooms will be limited to 12-16 students. Students also will be assigned seats on buses to allow for social distancing.

Students also will be required to wear face masks and will pick up lunches in cafeterias and return to class to eat. In some cases, they may dine in the lunchroom.

Board members said they also want to make sure staff are protected, including custodians, bus drivers and other employees on the front lines. They noted these staff members sometimes don’t get the enough public support for their safety.

“I’m a ball of anxiety,” said board member Vickie Turner. “I don’t want to lose any lives, I just don’t.”