DeKalb school district proposes dates for face-to-face learning

DeKalb County Schools has proposed January reopening dates for buildings after updating its metrics to make decisions about face-to-face learning with coronavirus positivity rates rather than cases per 100,000 residents for 14-days straight.

DeKalb County School District superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday that teachers and staff will return to buildings Jan 4. Educators will continue to teach virtually until Jan. 19, when students in prekindergarten through second grade, as well as sixth and ninth grades, can resume face-to-face learning.

Students in third through fifth grades, seventh through eighth, and 10th through 12th grades can return Jan 25. Families can choose to keep their students in online-only learning.

But all of that assumes the countywide positivity rate decreases sharply over the next month.

DeKalb will allow students, teachers, and staff to re-enter schools five days a week if the positivity rate is below 5%. The number of in-person days for students and staff will decrease if the rate increases.

Positivity rates greater than 10% will require online-only learning for all students, according to the new metrics. The Georgia Department of Health reported on Dec. 15 that DeKalb currently has a positivity rate of 10.1% ― or 496 cases per 100,000 people in the past two weeks.

District officials previously said they would wait until DeKalb reported 100 cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period before reopening schools. But the district revealed the new metric during a virtual town hall meeting on Monday.

DeKalb County school board member Stan Jester said Tuesday on his blog that COVID Medical Advisors have shared that it is now “possibly safer” for students to be in school than out of school, particularly if mitigation strategies are in place.

DeKalb transitioned to an online-only model in August and has never offered the option of in-person learning. Some parents since then have purchased electronic billboards and rallied at Piedmont Park to urge DeKalb to reopen schools.

Watson-Harris told the AJC the evolved plan is “a collective decision that we’ve made” to provide opportunities for students who need face-to-face learning to succeed.

“It isn’t me responding or caving to the rallies or the billboards,” she said.

Watson-Harris told the AJC that DeKalb’s evolved threshold is “just a different way of looking at the same issue” because it still uses Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.

Although cases are rising, Watson-Harris said 40% of DeKalb’s families said in a recent survey that they want face-to-face learning. But she acknowledged that others think reopening “is very scary” at this time.

Some parents and teachers expressed those fears in the town hall’s Facebook livestream.

Parents mentioned that Forsyth County high schools resumed an online-only learning for the rest of 2020 due to outbreaks. Cobb, Fulton, Hall and Cherokee counties are also resuming remote learning for certain schools.

Erica Lynn of Tucker called DeKalb’s decision “ridiculous,” questioning how her children can return to classes when they can’t even see their family for Christmas. DeKalb schools math teacher Marc Schneider said he’s a 58-year-old with heart issues, so he wants assurances that measures are being taken to protect teachers and their positions if they chose to not return.

Watson-Harris said DeKalb will work with teachers to find the “best possible situation.” She said teachers won’t be “penalized” if they don’t want to return, adding that “we’re fully committed to compassion over compliance.”

Wendy Hamilton of Decatur asked how DeKalb could expect teachers to provide virtual learning and in-person instruction simultaneously. Some other parents said schools should not reopen until the district resumes its other functions in-person, such as board meetings.

“My child is 5 years of age and he is thriving in virtual learning. He will remain in virtual schooling at Smoke Rise Elementary,” said Jeannette Fusia, who added her son is in the high-risk group for developing illnesses. “I also hope that we are thoughtful for our teachers and are using our voices to help support them as well.”

On Monday night, Dunwoody Mayor Lynn Prager Deutsch told her city council she plans to send a letter to Watson-Harris asking if there’s anything Dunwoody can do to help schools reopen safely.

DeKalb County’s next school semester begins Jan. 19.