Metro Atlanta superintendents say virtual option will continue in fall

AJC education columnist Maureen Downey  hosts a virtual roundtable of seven metro Atlanta  schools superintendents on March 10, 2021. (Todd Duncan / AJC)
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AJC education columnist Maureen Downey hosts a virtual roundtable of seven metro Atlanta schools superintendents on March 10, 2021. (Todd Duncan / AJC)

Credit: Todd Duncan

Credit: Todd Duncan

Students in seven metro Atlanta school districts will still have the option of virtual learning next school year, their superintendents said Wednesday in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution online forum.

The leaders of Atlanta Public Schools and the Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett and Henry County school districts joined the panel, moderated by AJC education columnist Maureen Downey.

July 1, 2020 Atlanta - New APS superintendent Lisa Herring speaks after she was worn-in during the Swearing-In Ceremony at Atlanta Public Schools Headquarters in Atlanta on Tuesday, June 30, 2020. Lisa Herring called it a time of hope but also anxiety as she was sworn in Wednesday as Atlanta Public Schools superintendent. The district held the short ceremony Wednesday at its downtown headquarters. The event was closed to the public because of the coronavirus, but viewers could watch it on the districtÕs Facebook page. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
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July 1, 2020 Atlanta - New APS superintendent Lisa Herring speaks after she was worn-in during the Swearing-In Ceremony at Atlanta Public Schools Headquarters in Atlanta on Tuesday, June 30, 2020. Lisa Herring called it a time of hope but also anxiety as she was sworn in Wednesday as Atlanta Public Schools superintendent. The district held the short ceremony Wednesday at its downtown headquarters. The event was closed to the public because of the coronavirus, but viewers could watch it on the districtÕs Facebook page. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Most of the superintendents said students attending in person in the upcoming school year will be subject to COVID-19 mitigation measures similar to those in place now, including masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing. Virtual learning will take place through students’ home campuses or expanded districtwide virtual academies, the panelists said.

“I actually have great confidence and optimism in the quality and effectiveness of virtual learning,” said Henry County Schools Superintendent Mary Elizabeth Davis. “I don’t think it is for every family and for every child, but I believe families who have opted to continue in the virtual environment should have confidence that it will be a quality and comparable education.”

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The sudden need for mass virtual learning a year ago due to the pandemic caught school districts by surprise.

“We were discombobulated,” Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Herring said. “We didn’t have time for a rollout.”

The panelists said they improved virtual learning over time.

Henry County Superintendent Mary Elizabeth Davis. (AJC file photo)
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Henry County Superintendent Mary Elizabeth Davis. (AJC file photo)

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

The Cobb County School District is trying to design a virtual option that does not require teachers to work simultaneously with students in person, Superintendent Chris Ragsdale said. Many teachers complain that model does not work, but finding two of every kind of teacher is challenging, especially for advanced courses, he said.

The timelines for reopening schools in metro Atlanta this school year varied by district. Gwinnett began a staggered reopening in August for students whose families chose in-person learning. DeKalb reopened for some students Tuesday for the first time in a year. Clayton will not reopen until next month.

Fulton County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney at  a press conference on March 9, 2020. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
Caption
Fulton County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney at a press conference on March 9, 2020. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

In response to a question from Downey about teachers who opposed reopening plans, the superintendents said they took safety concerns into account.

“It’s been a difficult balancing act, but I think that we have found a balance in Fulton County Schools to both meet the needs of our students and address the fears of our employees,” Superintendent Mike Looney said.

All the panelists said they are encouraging, but not requiring, employees to get vaccines now that they are newly eligible.

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved a vaccine for children younger than 16. Some of the panelists said the state should consider an eventual COVID-19 vaccine requirement for students, citing other shots required to attend school.

Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, who marks 25 years on the job this month, got the last word.

“Teachers and staff have been outstanding,” Wilbanks said. “I knew they were, but during this pandemic, I think they have really risen to the occasion and their commitment to students is certainly unparalleled.”