"We are very much aware of the comments that have been made to that extent," said Herring in a phone interview before Monday's board meeting. "Our focus is on the health and safety of our students and staff. It is a local decision at this juncture."
Last spring, when school buildings closed quickly, APS and other districts received mixed reviews about the effectiveness of remote-learning programs. Participation lagged, a burden fell on parents to make sure children, especially younger ones, logged in and completed assignments, and many students didn't have computers or internet access.
School officials are promising an improvement in virtual classes this fall. Herring, sworn in as superintendent on July 1, said the district is making sure students have the technology they need and said APS will offer parent learning sessions that focus on how they can support their children academically. Teachers also will receive training.
During Monday’s board meeting, several parents urged the district to find a way to bring students back to classrooms for in-person instruction, especially vulnerable students. They also expressed concern about the quality of virtual instruction. Others said they appreciated the district’s focus on health and safety.
Board member Nancy Meister, who represents north Atlanta, said she’s received hundreds of emails from parents with questions about the reopening plan. She asked the superintendent to explore a way to pair up teachers and students who are willing to come back to classrooms “in a limited capacity in some schools.”
“It’s very much a struggle for working parents … across the city,” she said. “They don’t feel capable of being there and teaching their kids.”
Meister also asked whether teachers of younger grades could be allowed to teach virtually from their classrooms, which are stocked with more supplies and materials to aid in their lessons. Herring replied that permitting teachers to teach virtually from inside a classroom instead of their homes is “absolutely on the table for us to consider.”
APS is one of the first districts in Georgia to say it will start the year virtually. Nationwide, many of the other 75 big, urban school districts who belong to the Council of the Great City Schools have yet to announce reopening plans, though several have said they intend to use a hybrid approach that includes a mix of in-person and online lessons.
On Monday, two big California school systems — Los Angeles and San Diego— announced they would start the year in an online-only setting.
APS reported that nearly three quarters of teachers who responded to a survey said they “were at least somewhat uncomfortable returning to work in person.” About 45% of bus drivers and teachers who took the survey reported they were at a high risk of becoming severely ill from COVID-19.
Atlanta Federation of Teachers president Verdaillia Turner said the district will need to do a better job of supporting special education students and said each student and family should have a personalized learning plan.