Metro area schools weigh burden of reopening policies amid COVID-19

In empty classroom during the first day of school at Carl Harrison High School in Kennesaw, Wednesday, August 1, 2018.  (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
In empty classroom during the first day of school at Carl Harrison High School in Kennesaw, Wednesday, August 1, 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

The most consequential decision for school districts in recent months has been when to reopen buildings for in-person learning, and under what circumstances they would reevaluate.

It’s a decision that requires balancing health and safety concerns with the educational and social benefits of having kids in classrooms.

“The challenge is we can’t please everybody,” said DeKalb County Board of Education chair Vickie B. Turner.

Indeed, school district officials across Metro Atlanta have seen protests on both sides of the issue — parents who have rented billboards and rallied to demand the option of sending their children to school, and those carrying coffins and other props saying reopening buildings is unsafe.

And in that environment, districts have changed direction on their plans to reopening multiple times, leading one school official in DeKalb County to call the teetering an “emotional rollercoaster” for parents, teachers and students.

DeKalb parent David Ziskind said DeKalb’s planning could have been better.

DeKalb schools remained virtual-only for the entire first semester. Then, in just a few weeks over the holiday break, the district announced that it was changing the threshold for when in-person learning would resume, said it would open class rooms despite coronavirus cases exceeding the threshold, then pushed back in-person learning by a month because of the raging virus.

“There is no transparency in their decision making process,” Ziskind said.

DeKalb’s announcement of a delayed reopening was made by Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris last week, after a two-hour closed door executive session, which is permitted only for personnel issues, potential litigation and real estate transactions.

It is unclear what the board and superintendent discussed in the closed session, but afterward Watson-Harris referred all questions on that topic to board members, who denied discussing the reopening plan in private.

Richard T. Griffiths, president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said the public deserves to understand how districts are making these decisions. And residents should know where their elected officials stand on it.

Yet in DeKalb, school board members have not voted to ratify any of Watson-Harris’ decisions on reopening schools.

DeKalb board member Joyce Morley questioned why the board isn’t voting on reopening policy, and said the elected board members should have a larger role because a superintendent can be swayed by “political wrangling and favors.”

“This was nowhere near data-driven,” she said of DeKalb’s reopening plan. “We’re not out here to please everybody, but we can make a decision that’s prudent for the best interests of the whole.”

DeKalb isn’t alone. Across metro Atlanta, the responsibility of deciding when to reopen school buildings rests primarily with unelected superintendents, whose decisions are typically not subsequently approved by board members.

Transparency varies among districts

Whether elected leaders publicly weigh in on reopening plans has varied from district to district.

Griffiths said some metro Atlanta districts have historically had issues with transparency.

“We know DeKalb County schools have played fast and loose in the past, as have Cobb and some others,” Griffiths said.

Cobb County is currently offering both in-person learning and remote classes. Reopening was left up to Superintendent Chris Ragsdale.

Four Cobb schools recently canceled in-person classes for a week. Officials would not say whether the closures are COVID-19 related. That has led to uncertainty.

A Cobb arts teacher died from COVID-19 on Christmas Day, and several educators are hospitalized.

Teachers are “scared, worried and nervous,” said Connie Jackson, president of the Cobb County Association of Educators. “I fear we’re going to have more.”

Another problem is “inconsistent” messaging from Cobb schools, she said.

Jackson said parents have complained to her that they have no idea what’s happening in the schools, and if some students are not wearing masks.

“We feel like pawns,” she said. “I wish I didn’t feel like political pressure and parent pressure was the reason that we are still in the situation we’re in.”

Gwinnett County families had the option of in-person learning until schools recently resumed all virtual due to rising cases and employee absences. Gwinnett will determine whether to reopen on Jan. 25. The decision is left to Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks.

A Gwinnett paraprofessional died from COVID-19 this month after exposure at school.

Gwinnett parents and staff addressed reopening at protests over the summer. During that time, Wilbanks decided to open schools, reversed his decision, then reversed it again for a phased-in approach.

Educator Brian Westlake said the district’s data collection and contract tracing methods, which aren’t available on its website, have created “a lack of trust.”

“It’s a problem with the way decisions are being made with a lack of transparency,” he said, adding that board members should lead on the decision rather than following the superintendent’s unilateral decision. “There needs to be more science and data involved in the decisions and less politics.”

The school board was involved with the reopening decision in Buford.

Buford City Schools started the school year by giving families the choice between in-person or digital learning. The board initially voted to resume in-person classes Aug. 5, but the start date was pushed back.

Some districts delayed reopening plans

Clayton County Schools hasn’t moved off its’ stance that classrooms will not reopen until the county has fewer than 100 cases per 100,000 people.

In Decatur, teachers and parents protested for a reopening delay. Decatur Superintendent David Dude in October delayed a fall return to in-person. Decatur is planning to resume in-person for elementary school on Jan. 19.

City school board members support Dude, but have not voted to approve his plan.

Parent Lena Kotler-Wallace said she has been homeschooling her two children because of the reopening plan.

“The fact that our school board has not taken clear action is a failure of leadership on their part, she said. “I hope their constituents remember come the next election day.”

Henry County Schools superintendent Mary Elizabeth Davis opened classrooms in October after the school board voted unanimously to resume in-person classes. The district went all-remote for a couple of weeks after a teacher died over the holidays.

Atlanta Public Schools is planning to resume in-person learning Jan. 25. Roughly a third of students have indicated they will return.

The APS decision was made by superintendent Lisa Herring, with input from board members. The board has held several public meetings to ask Herring about the plan.

Atlanta school board Chairman Jason Esteves said reopening decisions are “not within the board’s authority” because the charter grants that responsibility to the superintendent.

APS officials said its reopening threshold was less than 100 cases per 100,000 residents. When the rate reached 139 cases in mid-October, the district backed off its plan to reopen later that month.

That metric has recently soared to over 800 cases per 100,000 Fulton County residents. But APS officials said they can confidently reopen buildings despite the continued spread of the virus.

APS officials said their confidence is rooted in the vaccine, and ongoing research that indicates schools are not causing transmission. Officials also said they can mitigate the health risks through masks, social distancing and other measures.

Jennifer Rogers-Givens of We Demand Safety APS disagrees, adding that APS isn’t being transparent about its mitigation efforts.

“I think there’s just too many unknowns to talk about reopening school,” she said, adding that the board should have to vote on the issue.

Fulton County was the first district in metro Atlanta to go all virtual. School board members have pressed new superintendent Mike Looney on everything from how the district was reporting cases to how teachers were being treated.

Fulton has experienced intermittent closures of individual schools. Officials have paused in-person learning until Jan. 19 due to a surge in cases.

Ruth Hartman said it’s unfair for Fulton to go all virtual at the last minute, because it forces parents of younger students to “scramble” for childcare.

“Parents really need to pay attention and find out when school board meetings are and when they’re televised,” Hartman said. “Hold our elected officials accountable.”

Staff writers Kristal Dixon, Alia Malik and Leon Stafford contributed to this report.

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