Parents critical of Cobb schools’ reopening plan

August 1, 2020 Marietta - Amy Henry leads parents, students and community members during a rally to call on Superintendent Chris Ragsdale and the Cobb school board to offer in-person classes alongside virtual learning outside Cobb County Civic Center in Marietta on Saturday, August 1, 2020. The protesters gathered Saturday at the Cobb County Civic Center to call on Superintendent Chris Ragsdale and the Cobb school board to offer in-person classes alongside virtual learning to students returning to the classroom Aug. 17. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
August 1, 2020 Marietta - Amy Henry leads parents, students and community members during a rally to call on Superintendent Chris Ragsdale and the Cobb school board to offer in-person classes alongside virtual learning outside Cobb County Civic Center in Marietta on Saturday, August 1, 2020. The protesters gathered Saturday at the Cobb County Civic Center to call on Superintendent Chris Ragsdale and the Cobb school board to offer in-person classes alongside virtual learning to students returning to the classroom Aug. 17. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Parents have plenty to say about the Cobb County School District’s plan to return kids to classrooms.

The plan, announced Tuesday, calls for a phased approach to transition back to in-person learning. It has been met with criticism from parents who say the plan does not offer a hard timeline for when students will go back to school, and others who say they would still keep their kids at home.

Michael Shelley, the parent who created a petition calling on Superintendent Chris Ragsdale and the school board to offer a face-to-face option when classes resume Aug. 17, said Cobb’s proposal is only “half of a plan” because it offers no dates and does not identify which benchmarks it will use to determine when it’s safe for students to go back.

He said Gwinnett County’s plan, also released Tuesday, was “very brave” because it had a date for in-person learning to begin: Aug. 26.

“The bottom line is we are still not satisfied and we are going to continue our quest to get schools reopened,” Shelley said.

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Fellow Cobb parent Amy Henry said Cobb’s “watered down” plan does nothing to hold the school district accountable in reopening schools.

“This was just to placate parents and that’s unacceptable,” she said.

Cobb schools say the plan doesn’t provide a definite start date for students to return because it wants to analyze public health data related to the spread of COVID-19 in the community. Under phase one, kindergarten through fifth-grade students, as well as some special needs students, will, at an unspecified date, return to the classroom first. Phases two and three would see the return of middle and high school students, respectively.

One metro Atlanta school district with kids in classrooms — Cherokee County — reported its first positive COVID-19 test on the second day of the new school year. The district said Tuesday the teacher and 20 students at Sixes Elementary School in Canton will be quarantined at home for two weeks. The educator will instruct students online until they can return to school.

Both Shelley and Henry said the news from Cherokee does not deter their fight for choice. Henry said younger children are less likely to get severely ill from COVID-19 and the benefit of children learning in the classroom “far outweighs any risk” they may face. Shelley said Cherokee’s handling of its positive case provides optimism “for those who want our children to go back to school.”

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Connie Jackson, president of the Cobb County Association of Educators, said the district and parents should listen to local public health experts who have a better grasp of what’s going on with COVID-19 transmission rates. The desire of parents to have their children learning at school, she said, should not come at the expense of educators and students who may face a high-risk of infection and serious illness.

“They are asking for something that is not safe at this time,” Jackson said of the parents’ push to reopen schools. “I do not think that teachers and staff should be risking their lives at this point, as well as the lives of all the children.”

As of Wednesday, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported 12,489 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Cobb, including 1,343 hospitalizations and 310 deaths. DPH data shows Cobb’s total cases per 100,000 people is 361 in the last two weeks. Dr. Janet Memark, district director of the department, said anything greater than 100 is considered high community spread.

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For Mableton parent Millicent Phinizy, those numbers are still too high for her to feel comfortable to send her two elementary school-aged children back to school. Phinizy said the all-virtual option will be difficult for her family to implement, but said they have made the necessary sacrifices to adapt to the change. Phinizy said she had to quit her job, and the family now relies on her husband as the sole breadwinner.

She said children may not get as sick when they are diagnosed with COVID-19, but adults are also in school buildings. She said she hopes the school district doesn’t cave to political pressure to reopen the classrooms when “it’s not just safe enough right now.”

“I just feel like the kids’ lives and the lives of the staff members in the building have to come first,” she said.

READ | Georgia passes 200,000 coronavirus cases

Cobb County School Board members told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the district wants students to return to the classroom as quickly as possible. Board member David Chastain said he’s watching how other school districts carry out their reopening plans and the “various challenges” that come with it.

Board Chairman Brad Wheeler told the AJC that the danger the district faces with putting a date on its plan is that the numbers may not be in the district’s favor as that time draws closer.

“You don’t want to rush into that and have it blow up on you,” he said.

Board member David Morgan said the district is listening to the voices of all parents. However, parents should understand that the district is tasked with “thinking about everyone’s safety.”

“You have to think about the teachers, bus drivers, custodians and students,” he said. “Ultimately, I think, though inconveniencing, we are going about this the right way.”