DeKalb superintendent criticized over district’s handling of COVID-19

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

Residents in the DeKalb County School District on Monday voiced complaints about teachers being ordered back into classrooms and urged the superintendent to delay bringing students back into buildings due to the pandemic.

In a board of education meeting that lasted for hours, Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris faced criticism over health safety in buildings and a perceived lack transparency about the coronavirus in schools.

“As a teacher, I know that not enough has been put in place to limit the risks to staff, students and the community,” Tanya Curry told board members.

Curry said she’s resigning from the district rather than returning to school during the pandemic.

Classes in the DeKalb County School District have been virtual since last March. Officials have not said when in-person learning will begin again.

But teachers and school staff were told to return to school buildings last week. School board members said they heard from many teachers who asked to continue teaching virtual, but their request was denied or not yet approved.

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Watson-Harris, who became superintendent in June, sought to assure the public and board members that the district will “walk hand in hand” with teachers during the reopening process.

But many said it didn’t seem that way. Some board members said the buildings aren’t pandemic-safe and some were cold. They said employees are fearful of being in close contact with others as well as sharing school bathrooms.

Diijon DaCosta, board vice chair, said the district shouldn’t have had employees return to buildings until they were vaccinated.

”Our staff and our teachers are in fear,” DaCosta said. “This virus is disproportionality affecting our children and people of color and, from the speakers, you saw a diverse group of individuals that are screaming we should not be moving forward.”

Other board members said the district had not been transparent about COVID-19 cases in schools. While districts across the metro Atlanta routinely post such data, including those that remain only-online, DeKalb didn’t do so until Friday.

“We were not posting the numbers for schools previously because we were not in session,” Watson-Harris said. “There was no hiding of information.”

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The district’s data said 604 employees and 158 students tested positive for COVID-19 from July 1 to Feb. 3. A campus supervisor at Henderson Middle School recently died due to complications from the coronavirus, the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

“We just had a death of one of our officers, but [we pretend] nothing is going on,” said board member Joyce Morley.

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Morley also said the district had tried to silence the teachers from speaking out. It’s not clear whether she was aware that earlier Monday, the district sent a message warning employees against making public comments.

“Employees have been advised not to respond, comment or contact the media on behalf of the district,” the message said. In a statement to The AJC, the district maintains this has been a “board adopted policy for a number of years.”

Two board members said the district should be more transparent about which buildings are COVID-19 hotspots. Vickie Turner, the board chair, said she didn’t know the district recently shut down some buildings due to COVID-19 cases.

“Something is wrong when we push those teachers to go back into that environment when we know they’re not well,” Turner said.

ExploreDeKalb school district closes additional buildings due to COVID-19

Watson-Harris routinely holds virtual town halls and sends messages in newsletters to talk about the district’s safety protocols. She told parents in January “the safety of our students and our staff would remain our top priority.” She and other school leaders are also featured in videos meant to assure employees that buildings are safe.

At the meeting, the board approved the purchase of school disinfectant for more than a million dollars. Turner said the district should also consider face shields and plexiglass for teachers.

Morley said these things should have been obtained long ago.

“I’m just appalled because we really were not ready,” she said.

Nearly 20 people submitted pre-recorded comments for the meeting, nearly all critical of the district. But one parent said he favored reopening because his son is falling behind in virtual learning.

A billboard calling on DeKalb school distict leaders to offer a more robust in-person learning option, paid for by a group of DeKalb County parents, is seen on DeKalb Industrial Way in Decatur, Georgia, on Oct. 16, 2020. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
A billboard calling on DeKalb school distict leaders to offer a more robust in-person learning option, paid for by a group of DeKalb County parents, is seen on DeKalb Industrial Way in Decatur, Georgia, on Oct. 16, 2020. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Last fall, many parents urged the district to reopen classrooms. Billboards on I-85 and I-285 pushed that idea.

Greta Intra, a third grader at Briar Vista Elementary, told the board Monday that it’s safer at home even though “it’s boring” compared to regular classes.

Saisha Moreno-Hernandez, another third grader from Briar Vista, said in-person classes put her and her family at risk.

“Our classrooms are not big enough to all be at a safe distance,” she said. “If one person gets COVID-19 and they don’t know it, the whole class is at risk of getting sick, and if everyone’s not safe, COVID-19 could hurt us very badly.”

Watson-Harris stressed the district would not reopen schools unless all have safely enacted the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After the meeting, the district issued a statement attributed to the superintendent.

“I hear the concerns of our community loud and clear,” the statement said. “We are continuing to engage in town halls and school walk-throughs in the entire District to evaluate when it’s safe to return to face to face instruction. Families will be given a two-week notice to provide a smooth transition before students return for face-to face-learning.”

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