Metro Atlanta school leaders talk back-to-school plans in community forum

An empty classroom at Marietta High School in Marietta, Ga.,  (Audra Melton/The New York Times)

An empty classroom at Marietta High School in Marietta, Ga., (Audra Melton/The New York Times)

No matter what plans local school leaders devise for back to school this fall, there will be a large contingency of people that are unhappy.

With that caveat, superintendents from seven metro Atlanta school districts joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Wednesday in a virtual online forum.

“Do not ask parents to choose between health and education,” said a Facebook attendee identified as Dana Tapu in the chat area.

Education reporters as well as parents, students and members of the community questioned the decisions put forth to open school. More than 3,300 attendees watched on Facebook LIVE and the AJC YouTube channel. Countless others dialed in on a dedicated phone line.

With three of the five largest districts opting to begin the school year with virtual learning, childcare has become a major issue.

Morcease Beasley of Clayton County admitted that he doesn’t have all the answers.

“If I knew it all, I should be running the country,” he said.

He implored the community to step up. “When we choose not to make tough decisions on the front end, we end up making the tough decisions on the (back) end,” he said. “If we don’t bring everyone back, we’ll need grandmas and faith-based institutions and aunties to come on board.”

DeKalb County’s newly appointed superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris said she hopes to use a cascading model to bring the students who most need in-person instruction back to classes in the buildings first.

“We continue to identify ways, even in a hybrid model, to bring back the youngest, the English for Speakers of Other Languages students, those with IEPs and those transitioning from elementary to middle or middle to high school first,” she said. “We want to do as much as we can for every student, but those with the most needs should be addressed first.”

As the head of the largest school district in the state, J. Alvin Wilbanks agreed that expectations for school officials is greater than the allocated resources.

“If in-school safety is a concern, some will start off with digital learning,” he said. “Each plan has a lot of issues. But we are limited in what we can deliver.”

With a $2.3 billion budget, the district lost more than $100 million in state funding due to the drop in tax revenue. Similarly, Mike Looney of Fulton County remarked that his district will start the school year with $60 million less in state funding.

WSBTV reporter Mike Petchenik asked why he hadn’t decided to make mask-wearing mandatory or go to an all-virtual plan when Atlanta Public Schools has already set that rule.

“Fulton County is a very geographically diverse district. When you look at the data you’ll see we have some hot spots and some areas in Fulton County where the spread of COVID-19 is very moderate and then we have some spots in the county where really isn’t a lot of spread according to the maps provided by the Departments of Health,” said Looney. “So when we make a decision, we want it to be right for the entire school community.”

Cobb County’s Chris Ragsdale said he has 100% confidence that his teachers can effectively educate students whether it’s in-person or on-line.

“We’re still watching the data as far as guidance goes,” he said. “We’re talking multiple times with health officials … at this point in time we’re offering both.”

“How can anyone expect the first try at virtual learning, which was a knee-jerk reaction, to be highly successful?” asked Kimberly Warren Lipscomb via Facebook. “We need to revise, revisit and make it better! That’s what teachers do!”

Audience members said they’d like to see a follow up in a month or so.

“This has been so eye opening,” said another Facebook attendee identified as Ariel Ruffin. " I’ve never had a chance to see who is running other districts. I hope we do more of these.” A Facebook poster identified as Davaida Denton agreed.

“Thank you, AJC. This has been illuminating. Please publish more Q&As in the paper and online.”

While Ragsdale, Wilbanks and Looney saw a fair share of razzing, there was a lot of praise for the two new superintendents and for the Clayton County leader.

“I am impressed with both superintendents from Dekalb and APS as well as with Dr. Beasley for leading courageously!!” wrote a Facebook attendee identified as Tanzy Eaglin Mason.

Another Facebook attendee identified as Marcia Jackson agreed.

“APS and Dekalb and Clayton have all picked highly qualified knowledgeable superintendents. I appreciate that they are on top of the science and not the politics of this pandemic.”

With about 7,500 students, Grant Rivera oversees Marietta City Schools, the smallest district at the forum, but his issues are just as immense. In his closing remarks he asked the audience and his fellow superintendents to remember why education is so important.

“I have incredible hope about how education can impact a child and move a community,” he said. “In the midst of the pandemic there have been glimmering signs of hope. Look at how educators across the metro area have stepped up to support our children. Look at how the business community has partnered with families in ways we never have before.”