DeKalb teachers ordered back to classrooms as COVID-19 fears grow

DeKalb County School District teacher Jasmine Casilla in her daughter’s hospital room at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta - Egleston Hospital in Atlanta on Jan. 29, 2021. Casilla teaches her online classes from the hospital room. Her daughter has been hospitalized since November. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
DeKalb County School District teacher Jasmine Casilla in her daughter’s hospital room at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta - Egleston Hospital in Atlanta on Jan. 29, 2021. Casilla teaches her online classes from the hospital room. Her daughter has been hospitalized since November. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Jasmine Casilla often stays awake after midnight to prepare lessons for her non-English speaking students at the DeKalb International Student Center.

During the day, she virtually teaches virtual classes alongside the intensive care bed of her 6-year-old daughter, hospitalized since November.

Casilla wishes the DeKalb County School District would let teachers work remotely until vaccinations are completed during the coronavirus pandemic. She said Monday officials have yet to confirm if they will grant her extension request. She’s scared of catching the virus at school and possibly infecting her family.

Jasmine Casilla hopes DeKalb County lets teachers work remotely until coronavirus vaccinations fully given out. Video by Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

DeKalb has held virtual-only classes since March 2020 and has not said when in-person learning will begin again. Some staff members returned to buildings in early January to prepare for in-person learning.

Most remaining staff, including teachers, are to return to schools Wednesday, according to a district spokeswoman.

Casilla said families are torn between work and health.

“I’m not the only one trying to keep a family member alive,” she said.

Many DeKalb parents want classrooms opened. Last fall, some parents flooded district leaders with emails in pleading for a return to classes. Billboards erected on I-85 and I-285 at the time urged DeKalb to give families a choice.

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

Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris holds virtual town halls and distributes newsletters to assure residents schools will be safe. She told parents in January “the safety of our students and our staff would remain our top priority.”

The district also posted videos meant to assure staff that buildings are safe.

Across the metro area, Clayton County and DeKalb County are the only school districts that remain online-only. Atlanta Public Schools recently opened its doors to some of its young students. Older students are expect to return later this month.

DeKalb had planned to reopen classrooms in January, but reversed course amid rising COVID-19 cases as well as protests from parents and teachers. At one protest people held signs that read: “face to face is not safe” and “I cannot teach from the grave.”

Parents in favor of reopening cite recent research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said classrooms can reopen if communities embrace safety measures.

Casilla said her daughter, Isabella, was diagnosed with lupus last September. She has since developed two more potentially life-threatening conditions: macrophage activation syndrome and thrombotic microangiopathy in her kidneys.

Her husband quit his job to care for their twin toddlers. One of their twins had heart surgery last year.

“I’ve only had about three good cries in two months,” Casilla said, breaking into tears over the phone. “For three weeks we had no clue what was going on.”

Casilla cannot afford to take unpaid leave and is ineligible for paid leave because she has not worked a minimum of 1,250 hours in DeKalb schools within the last year, according to district emails obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

DeKalb County School District teacher Jasmine Casilla interacts with students during online learning from her daughter’s hospital room at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta - Egleston Hospital in Atlanta,  Jan. 29, 2021. Jasmine’s daughter has been in the hospital since November. Casilla. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
DeKalb County School District teacher Jasmine Casilla interacts with students during online learning from her daughter’s hospital room at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta - Egleston Hospital in Atlanta, Jan. 29, 2021. Jasmine’s daughter has been in the hospital since November. Casilla. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The district has changed its metrics for reopening twice. Officials initially said they would wait until there are fewer than 100 cases per 100,000 residents prior to reopening. Later, the district announced they would reconsider reopening if the two-week positivity rate drops below 10%, which has yet to happen.

Watson-Harrison told parents in January that their reopening metrics changed based on CDC recommendations. She said the CDC advises districts to resume classes if buildings have strong safety measures in place. The new guidance still includes “consideration” of the positivity rate, she said.

ExploreCOVID-19 cases reported at metro Atlanta public schools

The school system has said families will receive notification two-weeks prior to an in-person learning date.

In response to an AJC records request, the district said that 541 employees and 144 students have tested positive for COVID-19 from July 1 to Jan. 28.

DeKalb school board vice chair Diijon DaCosta has urged Gov. Brian Kemp to prioritize teacher vaccinations.

Until then, Deborah Jones of the Organization of DeKalb Educators said the district needs to listen to teachers because educators are legitimately scared.

“They are deathly afraid,” she said.

ExploreMore stories about DeKalb County Public Schools
DeKalb County School District teacher Jasmine Casilla interacts with students during online learning from her daughter’s hospital room at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta - Egleston Hospital in Atlanta, Jan.  29, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
DeKalb County School District teacher Jasmine Casilla interacts with students during online learning from her daughter’s hospital room at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta - Egleston Hospital in Atlanta, Jan. 29, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@

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