Two metro Atlanta school districts pause live classes as others set to open

Clarkdale Elementary School wait at a social distance as they prepare to board their school busses after school in Austell, Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. Cobb County schools, the state's second largest district with about 112,000 students, will begin the first phase of its reopening plan on Monday, Oct. 5. The district will reopen classes to students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade and kindergarten through 12th grade special education students. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Clarkdale Elementary School wait at a social distance as they prepare to board their school busses after school in Austell, Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. Cobb County schools, the state's second largest district with about 112,000 students, will begin the first phase of its reopening plan on Monday, Oct. 5. The district will reopen classes to students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade and kindergarten through 12th grade special education students. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

Fulton and Cherokee county school districts announced Friday that they will not hold in-person classes next week due to a surge in COVID-19 cases.

That means a schedule change for families of roughly 150,000 students in the two districts, some of whom had been counting on their children returning to brick-and-mortar classrooms at the start of the new semester.

The two districts say in-person learning will now begin no sooner than Jan. 19.

ExploreGeorgia’s health care system on the brink

Other districts across metro Atlanta are making the opposite decision, even with access to the same data that shows record numbers of new coronavirus cases pushing the state’s health care system to the brink.

Atlanta and DeKalb County school districts still plan to reopen classrooms for the first time this academic year later this month.

In a Friday announcement, Fulton officials said they changed course after closely monitoring the number of cases over the holiday break.

“We are now facing a post-holiday surge of positive cases impacting our ability to sufficiently operate schools,” the district said in a press release. “Local hospitals report they are near or at capacity, and new information has been shared about vaccination availability to school personnel.

Teacher Amber Horton holds up a sign during a protest in front of the DeKalb school district offices along Mountain Industrial Boulevard in Stone Mountain on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Teacher Amber Horton holds up a sign during a protest in front of the DeKalb school district offices along Mountain Industrial Boulevard in Stone Mountain on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

“These developments have all been part of the decision-making process leading to this delay.”

District data from this week showed 142 students or staff had tested positive. The last time students were in classes, which was from Dec. 14 to 17, data indicated there were 102 new positives.

While Fulton on March 13 became the first school district in metro Atlanta to stop live instruction, Cherokee County was among the first to reopen classrooms following the initial March shutdowns. It almost immediately drew national attention when photos of unmasked students jammed together went viral online — and when cases quickly rose.

In Cherokee, the virus has sickened or forced into quarantine more than 400 teachers and staff members out of its 4,800 employees.

“Health experts are voicing concerns that a new COVID-19 strain now circulating in our nation will spread faster among everyone, including school-age children,” Superintendent Brian Hightower said. “Our hospitals are full.”

ExploreMore Atlanta students opting for in-person learning than in fall

DeKalb will proceed with its plan to reopen classrooms for prekindergarten, first, second, sixth and ninth grades on Jan. 19 — despite the positivity rate in the county being above 10%, which is the threshold at which officials there initially said would keep classrooms shuttered. Parents have the option of having their children continue with remote learning.

For Atlanta, the plans are to give prekindergarten through second grade along with some special education students the option to resume live learning Jan. 25. Students in other grades will have the option of returning in the weeks that follow.

“This week brings us to the close of our first few days back,” APS superintendent Lisa Herring said in a video message posted to her district blog Friday. “Currently, we still plan to move towards a late January reopening. As we monitor each day and plan accordingly, our administration will maintain ongoing efforts of communication.”

AJC staff writers Vanessa McCray and Wilborn P. Nobles III contributed to this story.

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