Nearly 200 people rallied in the cold Saturday at the district offices of Atlanta Public Schools urging officials delay school reopenings while cases of the coronavirus are spiking.

Organized by several teacher groups, protesters called for APS to continue reliance on remote learning until the current surge in COVID-19 subsides — or until vaccines are more widely available.

“We understand the need for face-to-face school, but we don’t feel it’s safe,” said Celeste Howard, an instructional coach in literacy at Cleveland Avenue Elementary School. “We do not want to mourn the loss of anybody in the building — we’ve already done that. Some of the students have had to deal with the loss of relatives. We know that our community is more vulnerable.”

APS plans to resume in-person classes starting Jan. 25 for students who opted to return. The first phase will include lower elementary and some special education students. Students in older grades are to return during the first week of February.

In a statement Sunday, a spokesman for APS said that the schools had spent months talking to “teachers, principals, school leaders, parents, public health officials and others” about the safest way to re-open the schools.

While not specifically addressing Saturday’s teacher protest, the statement said officials will monitor COVID-19 levels closely.

“The health of our students, teachers, and staff is paramount and we take our decision to offer the option for in-person learning very seriously,” the statement said.

Officials had previously said that about 13,000 students, roughly one-third of all Atlanta students who attend the district’s traditional schools, had indicated plans to enroll in face-to-face classes. The remaining students would continue to learn online.

Teachers acknowledged the flaws of education via computer.

“I have never worked so hard in my life,” said Ingrid Blum, who teaches English to speakers of other languages at Sutton Middle School. “And the students are responding. They show up for class every day. And the parents are all super supportive. But it’s challenging.”

Teachers praised efforts at their schools to make the situation safe, but they argued that the goal is unattainable.

“I really approve of what our administrators are doing, but it can’t be enough,” said Caitlin Eley, also a teacher at Sutton Middle School. “Even if students don’t show symptoms of the disease, they can spread it. We don’t think it’s safe to go into the building.”

As of Saturday afternoon, 11,029 Georgians have died from COVID-19 with more than 100 deaths reported for each of the past five days, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Still, teachers said they understood the desire of many students to return.

“The students really do miss the social aspect of school, of course,” said Mary Villalpande, an English teacher at Grady High School.

Yet the very attempts to operate safely using social distancing and masks will undermine that, she said. “They are wanting us to go back in a way that the students won’t really get that social experience.”

Protesters marched around the APS offices twice, occasionally peppered by a snow flurry, then gathered alongside the building, chanting, “Face to face is not safe.”

The act of protest is, in some ways, an act of teaching, said Gina Devoe, who teaches 10th-grade English at Mays High School.

“We are supposed to model behavior for them,” she said. “I have been trying to get them to re-imagine how they learn. And I have to re-imagine how I teach.”

Safety concerns were not limited to students or teachers, she said. “We have to consider everybody, not just teachers, but the bus drivers, custodians and the counselors.”

Irving Harper, a bus driver and parent at Cleveland Avenue Elementary, said while the virus is rampant, he is content to have his three children study at home.

“Online is going great, because I am a parent who is very involved with my kids,” he said. “And if they do go back, I’m not going to go back to driving. It’s just not safe.”

One of the event’s organizers, Ramon Reeves, suffered through COVID-19 last summer.

Reeves, interim president of the Atlanta Association of Educators, said he has heard few among his 1,000 members who want a return to school now.

He said he does not expect APS to reverse course. He is eager for the vaccines to start reaching the arms of teachers — some were vaccinated at a district clinic held Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium — and wishes there were a wider appreciation of the disease.

“We talk about the deaths, but no one talks about all the long-term side-effects,” he said. “I had it in August and I am still short of breath.”

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