A district spokesperson said in a statement to the AJC that everyone must “focus on the mitigation strategies to reduce transmission and prepare for re-opening schools in January 2021.” Those strategies include consistent and correct mask use, social distancing, hand washing, cleaning, and contact tracing in collaboration with health officials.
But families and staff at the protest said they aren’t confident schools can enforce those measures with students.
“A vaccine is right around the corner so we need to wait until the community spread is lower or until teachers can be vaccinated,” said Josh Weddle, a DeKalb math teacher, at the protest.
Weddle held the hand of his 4-year-son Lincoln while his other hand held a sign that stated “not safe to return, wait 4 vaccine.”
The teacher said coronavirus infection rates were too high for schools to safety reopen, and he’s worried because his 71-year-old mother-in-law lives with them. He’s the primary caretaker for his son and daughter, so he asked how DeKalb is going to help teachers who are also parents.
DeKalb wants to begin its reopening process Jan. 4, with staff returning to school buildings first. Students in grades prekindergarten through second, sixth, and ninth grade will have the option to begin in-person learning on Jan. 19. Students in third through fifth grades, seventh through eighth, and 10th through 12th grades can return Jan 25.
DeKalb, in accordance with its metrics for reopening, maintained an online-only learning model this school year. Some parents purchased electronic billboards and rallied at Piedmont Park to urge DeKalb to reopen schools.
Since then, the district updated its reopening threshold to show that positivity rates greater than 10% for two weeks straight will require online-only learning for all students. The Georgia Department of Health reported on Dec. 21 that DeKalb currently has a positivity rate of 10.2%.
But Tuesday’s protesters said the district is planning to reopen regardless of the 10% positivity rate threshold. The district told the AJC that revised CDC guidance suggests that school decisions relative to COVID-19 cannot “be made by any single indicator.”
“I’m so afraid,” DeKalb teacher Tracey Anderson said. Anderson was protesting with her daughter when she told the AJC that DeKalb needs to give teachers the same information that the district is receiving from its public health advisors. She said teachers should have more involvement in the planning for in-person learning.
Deborah Jones of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, which organized the protest, said the district’s actions suggest it doesn’t “value” its educators or else it wouldn’t have changed its reopening threshold.
“Our teachers want to be teaching in the buildings but they can’t keep the children safe if they’re not safe,” Jones said.
A district spokesperson also told the AJC that superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris could always “revise the plan” if there are suggestions from health officials or executive orders from government leaders. The spokesperson said in a statement that “the future response to the COVID-19 pandemic is extremely difficult to predetermine and must be situational.”
Several public school districts in the metro area, including Fulton and Gwinnett counties, reopened for face-to-face learning this year. Some metro area districts, however, had to close classrooms due to COVID-19 outbreaks.
DeKalb school board member Joyce Morley, the lone vote against Watson-Harris’ hiring, told the AJC “we’re no where near ready to go back into schools.”
Health officials on Dec. 21 reported 493 cases per 100,000 DeKalb residents in the past two weeks. Morley said that’s concerning because the district previously planned to delay reopening until DeKalb had 100 cases per 100,000 people over a 14-day period.
“The employees are fearful but I have to speak up for them,” Morley said.
Morley said she’s worried that Watson-Harris is “doing what she wants with a few board members” backing her rather than relying on data. Morley was never consulted about reopening, she said, adding that board member Diijon DaCosta was only informed “at the 11th hour.”
Residents in the predominately Black, southern region of DeKalb do not think it’s safe to resume face-to-face learning amid COVID, she said.
Racial disparities about school reopening during the pandemic have been seen elsewhere. A December CDC report found that racial and ethnic minority parents were more concerned about school reopening compliance with mitigation measures, safety, and their child contracting or bringing home COVID-19, than non-Hispanic white parents.
The CDC report stated that minorities are at risk of “worse outcomes” from infections brought home from school because minorities experience “higher COVID-19 incidence, related hospitalizations, and death” when compared to their white counterparts.