Atlanta school board gives preliminary OK to push back first-day start date

Atlanta school board executive administrator Pierre Gaither (left) and new Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Herring talk before Herring is sworn in on June 30. Herring plans to start the school year with virtual instruction instead of traditional face-to-face classes. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The Atlanta school board tentatively agreed to push back the first day of school by two weeks.

The board on Monday voted unanimously to start school Aug. 24 instead of Aug. 10. The new date would give teachers and families more time to prepare for virtual learning. The board still needs to give final approval to the calendar change at its August meeting.

Atlanta Public Schools announced last week that it would not reopen school buildings for traditional in-person classes, pointing to a recent surge of coronavirus cases in Fulton County and Georgia. Instead, the district will continue with virtual instruction that began in mid-March, when buildings first closed because of the pandemic.

Atlanta students will learn virtually for at least the first nine weeks of the semester, or until there is minimal to moderate spread of the virus, according to a plan presented by Superintendent Lisa Herring.

The decision comes as President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos call for schools to reopen and threaten funding to schools that do not.

"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.

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