Metro Atlanta teachers: Pandemic worries, but eager to be with students

John Lewis Invictus Academy begins the 2021-2022 school year on Thursday, Aug 5.  Kendle Ramsey organizes her 7th grade english classroom at the Atlanta Public School middle school Friday, July 30, 2021.  Ramsey, a Mississippi native whose mother is also a 7th grade english teacher, began her teaching career during the pandemic and has worked in person during summer school.  She is not certain how this school year will proceed but is excited to get started.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Combined ShapeCaption
John Lewis Invictus Academy begins the 2021-2022 school year on Thursday, Aug 5. Kendle Ramsey organizes her 7th grade english classroom at the Atlanta Public School middle school Friday, July 30, 2021. Ramsey, a Mississippi native whose mother is also a 7th grade english teacher, began her teaching career during the pandemic and has worked in person during summer school. She is not certain how this school year will proceed but is excited to get started. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Kendle Ramsey started her first year as an Atlanta Public Schools educator teaching second-grade students through a computer screen.

That was 2020.

Unable to form the bond needed to instill a love of learning in students, Ramsey hopes to overcome that hurdle when classes start in-person on Thursday.

“The excitement of building relationships with students in person is amazing, so I can’t wait for that,” said the seventh-grade English and language arts teacher at John Lewis Invictus Academy.

As students return to area schools, teachers are charged with helping them return to some normalcy, despite the pandemic. But school is starting at a time when coronavirus cases are increasing around the state due to the highly contagious delta variant and low vaccination rates.

ExploreFirst day in Atlanta area schools: Masks, no masks and quarantines

While many teachers are eager to work with students, they also voice anxieties about the pandemic and the varying safety protocols in school districts. Georgia is among states with the lowest vaccination rates in the nation.

“If the focus stays on doing what’s best for students, everything else becomes less important,” said Phil Sandifer, a coach and social studies teacher at Wheeler High School starting his 19th year in education. He teaches in Cobb County, where masks are optional.

Ramsey said she’s worried about teaching in-person because many people feel like the coronavirus threat has passed and “want to go back to the old idea of normal.”

Because APS requires masks, she said she will regularly remind her students to wear them — and keep their distance.

“There’s not going to be an easy way to do that other than stating it over and over again,” she said.

Combined ShapeCaption
John Lewis Invictus Academy begins the 2021-2022 school year on Thursday, Aug 5. Kendle Ramsey organizes her 7th grade english classroom at the Atlanta Public School middle school Friday, July 30, 2021. Ramsey, a Mississippi native whose mother is also a 7th grade english teacher, began her teaching career during the pandemic and has worked in person during summer school. She is not certain how this school year will proceed but is excited to get started. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

John Lewis Invictus Academy begins the 2021-2022 school year on Thursday, Aug 5.  Kendle Ramsey organizes her 7th grade english classroom at the Atlanta Public School middle school Friday, July 30, 2021.  Ramsey, a Mississippi native whose mother is also a 7th grade english teacher, began her teaching career during the pandemic and has worked in person during summer school.  She is not certain how this school year will proceed but is excited to get started.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Combined ShapeCaption
John Lewis Invictus Academy begins the 2021-2022 school year on Thursday, Aug 5. Kendle Ramsey organizes her 7th grade english classroom at the Atlanta Public School middle school Friday, July 30, 2021. Ramsey, a Mississippi native whose mother is also a 7th grade english teacher, began her teaching career during the pandemic and has worked in person during summer school. She is not certain how this school year will proceed but is excited to get started. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

New teachers

Across Georgia, some 5,100 full-time teachers are beginning their careers, according to the state department of education.

One of those first-year teacher is Tylan Bailey, who will be a physical education teacher at Briar Vista Elementary School. He is among some 250 educators teaching for the first time in the DeKalb County School District.

ExploreGeorgia schools reopen, with varying approaches to pandemic

“It’s always been my goal to become a teacher,” said Bailey, who admitted the pandemic remains a worry. He was a custodian at Hightower Elementary for more than 20 years before he earned his bachelor’s degree in the spring.

Combined ShapeCaption
Physical education teacher Tylan Bailey looks through a box of tennis rackets in his office at Briar Vista Elementary School in Atlanta on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Bailey worked as a custodian at a different elementary school before deciding he wanted to teach. After earning his bachelors degree at Georgia State University, this year will be his first as a teacher. The previous PE teacher left supplies before she retired, so Bailey will use most of his time before school organizing the materials. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Physical education teacher Tylan Bailey looks through a box of tennis rackets in his office at Briar Vista Elementary School in Atlanta on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Bailey worked as a custodian at a different elementary school before deciding he wanted to teach. After earning his bachelors degree at Georgia State University, this year will be his first as a teacher. The previous PE teacher left supplies before she retired, so Bailey will use most of his time before school organizing the materials. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Combined ShapeCaption
Physical education teacher Tylan Bailey looks through a box of tennis rackets in his office at Briar Vista Elementary School in Atlanta on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Bailey worked as a custodian at a different elementary school before deciding he wanted to teach. After earning his bachelors degree at Georgia State University, this year will be his first as a teacher. The previous PE teacher left supplies before she retired, so Bailey will use most of his time before school organizing the materials. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In a show of support, some school districts, including DeKalb, are offering wellness initiatives and other measures for teachers and other employees. There’s also ongoing mental health support for students.

APS has more than 400 teachers new to the district this school year and is “going all-in on emotional and physical wellbeing” of educators, said Skye Duckett, chief human resources officer.

ExploreTeacher vacancies in metro Atlanta schools not as severe as feared

Along with maintaining its COVID mitigation protocols, the district will introduce a new employee professional counseling program. “Zen” rooms also will be available in schools if teachers need to decompress, she said.

In Gwinnett where more than 1,400 teachers will begin teaching in the system this week, the district will have a health response team to work with teachers and staff who believe they have been exposed to the coronavirus, said Clay Hunter, the district’s associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional support.

Training teachers

The COVID-19 pandemic also changed how post-secondary programs prepared teachers for the classroom this year.

Sonia Janis, a clinical associate professor of social studies education at the University of Georgia, said some students didn’t receive an in-person classroom experience before graduating. Instead, they completed that part of their training in a virtual setting.

ExploreAtlanta school quarantines more than 100 students in first week of classes

Her program worked with Clarke County schools to set up virtual new teacher orientation sessions. Since the remote meet-and-greets didn’t have the personal touch new teachers would get with face-to-face meetings, Janis said veteran educators played a large role in helping new teachers “feel like they are part of a community, even though they are at home.”

“At some point, you just have to get started and be willing to learn as you go,” she said.

Stanton Elementary School reading and instructional coach Shanell Lee-Angry, who has taught for 16 years, said new educators can lean on their veteran colleagues when needed.

“This year, we are going to have to work together more than ever before to make sure our students receive what they need,” she said.


New teachers

The following is the estimated number of educators who will start the new school year in these districts. The data includes veteran teachers working in new districts:

Atlanta Public Schools: 400

Cobb County: 600

DeKalb County: 250

Fulton County: 427

Gwinnett County: 1,400