Revised Atlanta schools reopening plan provides more in-person options

A billboard urging Atlanta Public Schools to give parents more options to send their child back to in-person classes is displayed in Midtown on Oct. 1, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Atlanta Public Schools' revised reopening plan expands in-person learning options and could return students to classrooms by the end of the month.

Superintendent Lisa Herring will present her latest recommendation — a 96-page document— to the school board Monday. While board members can provide feedback, Herring will make the decision on how and when school buildings reopen.

APS shifted to online classes in mid-March as the coronavirus began to spread. The district started the current academic year in August with virtual-only classes. The reopening plans are contingent on public health data.

The district initially proposed that students in prekindergarten through second grade could choose to return to buildings twice a week. Certain special education students could opt for in-person classes four days a week.

The revised plan, released late Friday, expands the in-person option to allow students up to fifth grade to return to school buildings four days a week starting Oct. 26. Wednesdays would be reserved for at-home independent work, providing time for mid-week cleaning and for teachers to complete training.

Some parents criticized the first plan, saying it didn’t include enough opportunities for families who want face-to-face learning. Although the revised plan doesn’t go as far as they urged, it is closer to full-time, in-person instruction.

“We consider it a huge win. I mean if we can get kids back in school four days a week, that is a major change to everyone’s lifestyle,” said Kacie Brown, the mother of a kindergartener and second grader. She started “Let Atlanta Parents Choose,” a private Facebook group.

Also new on Friday, the district announced that middle and high school students would be given the option of returning to in-person classes four days a week starting Nov. 16.

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In a interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Herring said the expanded in-person options developed after hearing feedback from teachers and instructional experts. She acknowledged that some parents wanted more options, though others feel safer having their children at home.

“We recognize that it is still a need for us to continue virtual as an option for our students,” she said, adding that “there are parents and families who have expressed their desire to return.”

Students in all grades will continue to have the option to stay enrolled in virtual classes taught by teachers at their school or to enroll in the district’s full-time online Atlanta Virtual Academy.

In recent weeks, a vocal contingent of parents campaigned for more in-person options for students. More than 2,800 people signed an online petition. They put up a billboard in Midtown.

Brown said she left her job working in community outreach for her church in order to help her young children with virtual school.

The district’s decision to allow high school sports to continue while not allowing in-person learning also frustrated some parents. District officials said they relied on guidance from the Georgia High School Association and wanted to make sure student athletes wouldn’t lose scholarship opportunities.

Chris Fitzgerald, a mother of two middle school students, wanted an in-person, full-time option but said she’s “happy to compromise.”

”I really want to get my kids back in school as soon as possible and obviously one day of working online is a whole lot better than five," she said.

Face-to-face lessons, she said, will be far superior to online classes, which were interrupted almost daily by technology issues. She also cited the social benefits of having her children back in school.

But the move to allow more students to return concerns others. Within 12 hours of the district releasing the updated plan, 500 parents, staff and community members had signed an online letter urging the district to limit any reopening to prekindergarten through second grades and students with disabilities as initially proposed, said Sara Totonchi, a parent who helped organize the effort.

“Social distancing will not be possible with this new plan. And it will be impossible to achieve an equitable learning environment for all students receiving either virtual or in person instruction,” the letter states.

Atlanta Federation of Teachers president Verdaillia Turner also released a video message opposing the plan.

“This pandemic will not last forever,” she said. “But when a child is dead, when a teacher is dead, a parent is dead that will last forever. So don’t be pressured to open schools back up.”

The district reports that 72% of school-based employees indicated they are able to return this month. Teachers who are not assigned to in-person classes will have the option of working from their empty classroom with a supervisor’s permission, according to the plan.

Parents need choose options for their children by Oct. 12, which remain in place for first semester, which ends Jan. 15.

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