Metro schools using remote option more as COVID cases increase

Timber Ridge Elementary School fourth grader Aiden Zeigler, 9, gets help from his mother, Davene Sawyer, while working on his school lessons at the kitchen table in McDonough. Schools across the metro area such Timber Ridge have reverted temporarily in the past month to virtual learning because of coronavirus breakouts. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

caption arrowCaption
Timber Ridge Elementary School fourth grader Aiden Zeigler, 9, gets help from his mother, Davene Sawyer, while working on his school lessons at the kitchen table in McDonough. Schools across the metro area such Timber Ridge have reverted temporarily in the past month to virtual learning because of coronavirus breakouts. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Three weeks ago, mere days after the new school year had begun in early August, Davene Sawyer’s son told her it was time to turn their home into a classroom again.

There had been a COVID-19 outbreak at his Henry County school — Timber Ridge Elementary — and the district was switching third-, fourth- and fifth-graders to remote learning for three days. The idea was to separate infected kids from their schoolmates, and to disinfect classrooms before bringing students back to the building.

“It was very sudden and they never told us why,” Sawyer said of the decision to temporarily return the grades to online instruction. “It was so unorganized. It feels like a haphazard, no-directional approach.”

It’s a scenario that increasingly is playing out over and over again in metro Atlanta.

Schools across the region are returning kids to the dining room table for studies as COVID-19 infections surge in classrooms, sometimes impacting whole grade levels or an entire school building. Each district operates with its own criteria in making those decisions, and the reasoning is often confusing to parents, students and staff.

All of that has sent parents scrambling to find last-minute daycare or seeking permission to work from home again, and adding more uncertainty to an already chaotic school year marred by fights over masking and students being late for class because of a shortage of bus drivers.

“Last year when schools went fully virtual or offered some kind of hybrid program, there was some predictability,” said Dennis Attick, assistant dean of the school of education at Clayton State University. “Now it’s a great challenge to know what next Monday will look like.”

Dr. Harry Heiman, a clinical associate professor at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health, said school systems should not be trying to play doctor. The Department of Public Health should have a statewide set of guidelines for every school system to follow so there is consistency, Heiman said.

As it stands now, districts are trying to figure out solutions in an environment where masks are mandated at some schools and not at others, and where schools have different definitions of an outbreak.

“In the same way that a global pandemic can’t be solved one country at a time or one state at a time, the idea of an individual school district controlling something like this is going to be challenging,” he said. “The solution really lies in much stronger leadership from state and health leaders.”

Since the start of the new school year, 14 metro Atlanta school districts have recorded 18,548 COVID-19 cases. That data is as of Aug. 27.

COVID-19 cases among children are now at their highest point of the pandemic.

It’s a result that could have been avoided, Georgia Association of Educators President Lisa Morgan said.

Instead of listening to public health officials, Morgan said state leaders have pushed schools to operate almost as if the pandemic doesn’t exist, with crowded classrooms, buses of students sitting three to a seat and cafeterias where its impossible for children to stay masked.

“We are seeing the result of all our leaders not having a commitment to following the expert guidance of public health experts, including the CDC,” Morgan said.

And the problem is growing.

DeKalb school district leaders, who in August said they had avoided switching any students to remote learning, announced on Thursday that they would be closing Oak View Elementary School through Sept. 13. The announcement came after 18 students test positive for COVID-19.

The district considered keeping some students in the building, but decided against it because the outbreak hit every grade level except third and fourth grades.

“Our decision making process was to make sure that the students and the staff have everything they need to pivot to the virtual instruction,” DeKalb Schools Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris said. “We thought that was in the best interest of the school.”

DeKalb’s announcement followed a decision by Fulton County Schools in late August to pause in-person learning for the eighth grade class at Camp Creek Middle School and the fifth grade class at Lake Windward Elementary School — each because of a coronavirus outbreak.

Cobb County paused classes at East Side Elementary School for three days around the same time because of an outbreak there.

Remote pivot

Gwinnett Public Schools, the state’s largest school system, is one of the few in metro Atlanta that has not yet had to pivot to remote learning.

Atlanta Public Schools has switched some classrooms to remote learning, but a spokesman did not specify which schools were impacted.

The problem has been especially acute in Henry and Clayton counties.

Since the school year began last month, Henry has gone to remote learning for several grade levels and has closed 11 schools temporarily, the most recent being Tussahaw Elementary — just hours after the DeKalb closure.

Clayton has struggled even more, closing almost 20 buildings for at least three days or more since classes began Aug. 2.

Clayton Superintendent Morcease Beasley, during an Atlanta Journal-Constitution Community Conversation on Monday, said the district is up against a coronavirus spread that is not just at the school level, but entire ZIP codes.

“We’re looking at internal data, we’re looking at ZIP code data, and we’re working to make the best decision to ensure that we can have school for the rest of the year,” he said. “And if that means we’ve got to go virtually for a few days, a week or two weeks, then that’s exactly what we’ve decided to do.”

Under pressure

The decision on how to handle an outbreak — whether through isolating a person, class, grade level or entire building — is often based on contact tracing. In Fulton County schools, that work is done by district staff and the county health department, said spokesman Brian Noyes.

In other school systems, such as DeKalb, the county health department alone handles the contact tracing.

In most cases, schools are switching to remote learning for only three days. That’s generally enough time for contract tracers to determine who was at risk of a spread and who was not, Noyes said.

“Those three days allow us to figure out who was in classes together, who sat in lunch rooms together, who was on the bus together or who was together on a non-school related Little League team, he said.

Carla Tanguay, a clinical assistant professor, in GSU’s Department of Early Childhood & Elementary Education, said while the switch to remote has been disruptive, school can go on. Because of last year’s hybrid and online classrooms, students and teachers are better equipped to continue their school work when not in buildings. Employers also are more flexible because of what was learned in 2020.

“It’s not an easy thing to do on the fly,” she said. “But everyone is much better using digital tools and I think we are in a much better position going back and forth than last year. It’s still difficult, but we’re more prepared.”


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Credit: DeKalb County Schools