Pandemic aid, decision-making freedom among APS legislative priorities

Atlanta Public Schools created a list of 11 legislative priorities for the 2021 year.  AJC FILE PHOTO/Alyssa Pointer
Atlanta Public Schools created a list of 11 legislative priorities for the 2021 year. AJC FILE PHOTO/Alyssa Pointer

When the Georgia General Assembly convenes next week, Atlanta Public Schools will push for money to respond to challenges created by the pandemic. It will also lobby for continued freedom to decide how and when school buildings reopen.

The school board recently adopted its 2021 legislative priorities, a wish list of supports and measures officials believe would best serve the district. While most are repeats from previous years, a couple new priorities were added in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The district will ask lawmakers to provide money and flexibility to deal with the pandemic’s impact.

“We need more support not less support…, particularly for our students who are coming out of very challenging circumstances,” said board Chairman Jason Esteves. “School districts across the state will have to respond to that crisis.”

APS is one of a few metro Atlanta districts that maintained virtual-only learning since mid-March. The district had planned to reopen buildings in October, but decided against it as COVID-19 cases surged this fall.

Now, Atlanta school officials have a new plan to give students the option to return starting Jan. 25. But, district officials think it’s crucial such decisions continue to be made at the local level.

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Erica Long, senior advisor for policy and government affairs for APS, told board members in November she anticipates some legislators may try to dictate whether schools open or remain virtual only.

Some parents have urged APS to reopen schools immediately, while others have expressed concern about how the district will protect teachers’ health once face-to-face learning resumes.

“We are sensitive to the political and the community questions and concerns about how we are operating as school districts in this new model,” Long told board members. “It’s not unreasonable to expect that there will be some interest in limiting our options, so we want to make clear in our priorities that we can advocate for continued autonomy over how we operate.”

Long said the district also will keep an eye on state and federal funding. Officials said the district needs help to operate during the pandemic, which requires smaller in-person class sizes to ensure social distancing, protective gear and technology upgrades.

Esteves pointed to the state budget approved last summer that cut $950 million in school funding, prompted by the economic downturn due to the pandemic. He said he’s concerned the financial impact could worsen if there’s an attempt “to take away money” from school districts that kept buildings closed during the pandemic.

The 2021 legislative session is scheduled to start Jan. 11.

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