DeKalb residents hold a second protest against school reopening plans

Drumbeats and car horns filled the air for two hours in Stone Mountain during the second week of protests against the DeKalb County School District’s plan to reopening buildings for in-person learning next month.

Nearly 300 parents and teachers made their presence known in front of the district building on Tuesday morning. They held signs stating “face to face is not safe” and “I cannot teach from the grave.” Some people carried a prop casket along the sidewalk of Mountain Industrial Blvd.

They all waved signs in protest and expressed concerns about students and teachers becoming infected with the coronavirus if schools were to reopen during the height of the pandemic. The demonstrators said DeKalb should wait until cases decline or until vaccinations are widely available.

“I think it’s reckless,” Stephanie Spencer, a district teacher, said of the district’s reopening plan.

Spencer said it is difficult to obtain more information about the plan because the district announced it just before winter break. She said in-person learning would put her older husband at risk.

District officials told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that they will reopen buildings with guidance from the COVID-19 Task Force, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and DeKalb County Board of Health.

Some of the employees, who are also district parents, said they are worried about having to instruct in-person and virtual students at the same time, while also being concerned about their own childrens’ safety amid reports of a new strain of the virus.

The district needs to enhance the ventilation and air filtration systems in its buildings prior to reopening, demonstrators said, adding that class sizes should be smaller to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Oak Grove Elementary parent Molly Wack attended the protest with her two children. The mother of three held a sign that said “listen to the majority, not the wealthy minority.” Her 4-year-old daughter also held a sign for her mother that said “give teachers the options I have as a parent.”

Wack said teachers should be allowed to continue teleworking since parents can choose to keep their children in online-only learning. She said teachers have been working hard to make virtual classrooms successful, and “it doesn’t make sense to force them to take risks” during the pandemic.

“Supporting teachers and parents who are struggling in the virtual environment should be the district’s focus at this point,” Wack said.

Fernbank parent Gayle Rej said DeKalb should create a stronger plan prior to reopening. Fernbank parent Wendy Hamilton agreed, adding that DeKalb should be “hunkering down” and staying virtual until the vaccine is available. She slammed the district for making teachers “jump through all these hoops” to receive accommodations from teaching in-person.

A Cobb County teacher recently died from COVID-19, Hamilton said, so she doesn’t understand why DeKalb would reopen schools at this point. Health officials say DeKalb has had 527 infection cases per 100,000 residents in the last two weeks.

“These are not choices,” Hamilton said. “Who wants to work for a district that’s pushing them into harm’s way? This plan is not helping anyone.”

Deborah Jones of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, which organized the protest, said DeKalb teachers and staff need more clarity on details of the plans for face-to-face learning. Jones said the district has “a lot of old buildings that are not up to par,” and employees are worried that the superintendent and the board of education are not being “considerate” of the people who have to return to those buildings during the pandemic.

“They didn’t give us a heads up about returning to school until three days before they were out of school for the winter break,” Jones said.

DeKalb’s initial metrics for school reopening required no more than 100 cases per 100,000 residents for two weeks straight. That never occurred, so DeKalb maintained an online-only learning model this school year. Some parents protested this fall when school buildings remained closed.

Since then, the district updated its reopening threshold so that buildings can open if positivity rates remain lower than 10% for two weeks straight. The Georgia Department of Health reported on Dec. 28 that DeKalb currently has a positivity rate of 10.4%, but the district has indicated that it plans to reopen buildings anyway.

A district spokesperson told the AJC last week that everyone must “focus on the mitigation strategies to reduce transmission and prepare for re-opening schools in January 2021.” Those strategies include consistent and correct mask use, social distancing, hand washing, cleaning, and contact tracing in collaboration with health officials.

Parents are discussing plans to have children participate in a “virtual sit-out” on Jan. 7. They also shared information concerning online petitions asking DeKalb Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris and the school board to maintain online-only classes until cases decline.

Several employees who have submitted requests to continue working remotely once schools reopen told the AJC they are worried the requests will not be approved in time to avoid returning to the buildings.

A district spokesperson said Tuesday that district leaders have received guidance to work with employees who have communicated a hardship, which may include a pending review and response to those applicants. The spokesperson did not respond to a question about the protests.

DeKalb County School District’s plan to reopen buildings:

Jan 4: Staff return to school buildings.

Jan. 19: Students in Pre-K through second grade; sixth and ninth grades may return.

Jan. 25: Students in third through fifth grades; seventh and eighth grades; and 10th through 12th grades may return.