DeKalb schools preparing for possible in-person learning option

DeKalb County School District superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris speaks at her installment ceremony in July 2020. (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA J

Credit: REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA J

With local COVID-19 case numbers dipping below predetermined thresholds, the DeKalb County School District is preparing to transition toward offering in-person instruction.

If current trends continue, students who choose to return to a physical classroom could be back on campus on a limited basis by early November, according to the district’s plan.

“The tentative timeline is subject to change based on COVID-19 data and current health guidance from medical experts and health agencies,” a school district spokeswoman said in an email.

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When Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris released her re-opening plan in September, she said the transition toward an in-person learning option would not begin until DeKalb County’s 14-day average for COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents dropped below 100 for a sustained period of time.

The figure dipped below 100 for the first time on Saturday. It has remained in the 90s every day since, with an average of 96 reported Wednesday afternoon.

According to a return-to-work notification sent to district staff on Tuesday, employees could start working on campus two days a week as early as Oct. 19. That would pave the way for a “beta group” of second-, sixth- and ninth-graders to begin hybrid learning on Nov. 5 and 6.

Every student who opts in would then start in-person classes once a week on Nov. 9.

All of that’s dependent upon case averages remaining steady or dropping further, and any spike could start the timeline over. The transition process will be a focus of the school board’s next meeting on Oct. 19.

“During the phase-in process, families will receive an Intent to Return notification electronically on October 9th,” Watson-Harris tweeted on Tuesday. “Keep in mind, families will have the option of continuing virtual learning.”

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The new superintendent’s re-opening plan has been divisive, with critics coming from all angles.

Several school board members have expressed concern about offering any kind of in-person option this fall. Vice chair Vickie Turner said last month she was “a ball of anxiety." District 7 representative Joyce Morley — who has also raised eyebrows with other controversial comments — said she didn’t want “blood on my hands.”

Teachers have also shared fears about resuming in-person instruction.

A vocal group of parents focused in northern DeKalb County, meanwhile, has lobbied for a quicker, more robust return to the classroom. Dunwoody-area parent Steven Morales said the members of two popular Facebook groups are pooling their money to pay for electronic billboards supporting in-person learning.

They could go up at locations along I-85, I-285 and near the school district office as soon as this weekend, Morales said. The exact message is still to be determined, but the goal is to force officials to reconsider their plan.

Even if things keep moving forward, Morales said, offering as little as one day of in-person learning per week isn’t enough.

“If every other county surrounding us and internally can do it, why can’t DeKalb County?” Morales said.

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