Brooke French peered through the glass doors of E. Rivers Elementary School in Atlanta on Monday morning, hoping to catch a glimpse of her daughter as she walked to her kindergarten classroom.

During the last few days, her daughter was “excited but nervous.”

“There she is,” French said, as she waved.

A stream of parents and students toting backpacks and wearing masks made their way to the schoolhouse doors. Gold and blue balloons as well as the school’s lion mascot greeted them for an unusual first day back.

Parents weren’t permitted in, so they posed their children for photos on the sidewalk and in front of the school sign and said their goodbyes. School staff took temperature checks before students entered.

It was a moment that some Atlanta parents and students have waited for since mid-March, when the pandemic prompted APS to switch to online learning. After more than 300 days, Atlanta Public Schools resumed in-person classes for students in prekindergarten through second grade, as well as certain special education students.

E. Rivers Elementary School third grader Leah French joins her parents, Brooke and Jonathan French, as they wave through a window at her sister, Claire, as she makes her way down the hallway on Jan. 25 during the first day of in-person learning. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
E. Rivers Elementary School third grader Leah French joins her parents, Brooke and Jonathan French, as they wave through a window at her sister, Claire, as she makes her way down the hallway on Jan. 25 during the first day of in-person learning. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

The district’s decision to give students the option to return upset some parents and teachers, who fear it’s not safe. COVID-19 is spreading faster than it was in October, when the district delayed its first attempt at reopening.

Late Friday, Superintendent Lisa Herring announced she would postpone the return of students in third through 12th grade. Instead of coming back next week, APS will wait one to two weeks.

At a news conference Monday outside M. Agnes Jones Elementary School, near Morehouse College, Herring said the delay will give APS more time to implement a new surveillance testing program to curb spread of the virus. It also allows the district’s youngest and “most vulnerable” students to get the academic support they need.

Employees and students, with parent permission, will receive weekly rapid antigen tests in an attempt to identify COVID-19 cases earlier, even in those with no symptoms. The program will roll out in pilot schools by early next week and then grow to include all schools. Herring estimated it will cost $2 million.

“We are doing in Atlanta Public Schools everything that we can to keep our employees safe,” she said. “I’m listening. I know their concerns. Their concerns are our concerns.”

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Herring talks at a news conference at M. Agnes Jones Elementary School in Atlanta on Monday as school board Chairman Jason Esteves looks on.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Herring talks at a news conference at M. Agnes Jones Elementary School in Atlanta on Monday as school board Chairman Jason Esteves looks on. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Still, the phased reopening plan failed to please people on either side of the debate.

The school day ended with teachers and other advocates driving around the district’s headquarters with protest signs and honking horns. Rally organizer Tracey Pendley, the 2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year, wants to delay reopening until teachers can be vaccinated and called on APS to let teachers decide if they want to go back or not.

Pendley now works as an instructional coach, supporting elementary school teachers. She said she witnessed audio troubles Monday, as teachers tried to lead lessons for in-person and at-home students at the same time. She also saw how hard it was for children to keep their masks on and not get too close to each other.

“Today was scary. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to have our youngest kids come back,” she said.

Parents who pushed for schools to reopen saw the district’s decision to keep older students home longer as backsliding on a promise.

“I’m very disappointed that it changed. I think it kind of erodes the trust that we put into the educational system, and it doesn’t seem to be based on anything other than fear,” said Abby Ivie, a parent of two APS students.

E. Rivers Elementary School students get their temperatures Monday checked by school faculty and staff before entering the building during the first day of in-person learning for some special education students and prekindergarten through second grade students on Jan. 25, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
E. Rivers Elementary School students get their temperatures Monday checked by school faculty and staff before entering the building during the first day of in-person learning for some special education students and prekindergarten through second grade students on Jan. 25, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@

On Monday, she sent her daughter in prekindergarten to E. Rivers. Her daughter plays school every night, and recently cut out a construction-paper mask and drew a computer and keyboard.

Her third-grade son, who had planned to go back next week, won’t be able to return until Feb. 8.

The Buckhead elementary school is one of the APS schools with the highest percentage of students who opted to return. About one third of Atlanta students attending traditional, non-charter schools want to go back in-person, according to a December survey. At E. Rivers, it’s 61% of students.

Ivie, a pediatric nurse practitioner, said there’s no COVID-19 strategy that will be “100% effective, 100% of the time.” But she said students and schools can’t afford to wait until there’s zero risk.

Instead, APS should take careful steps to reopen schools as safely as possible. She said children need to be educated by professionals and spend time with their peers, and parents need to go to work.

“Are you waiting for perfection? Because that’s not obtainable. We have to do the very best that we can,” she said.

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