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Decatur schools will start the school year with virtual classes; racist slur disrupts virtual board meeting

COVID-19 Decatur

Decatur schools will start the school year with virtual classes; racist slur disrupts virtual board meeting

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Decatur High School, City Schools of Decatur, N McDonough Street.


By Sara Amis, contributor 

Decatur, GA — More than 600 people attended City Schools of Decatur’s regular board meeting July 14, conducted via Zoom, but the meeting was quickly derailed by a racist comment made in the meeting chat.

The School Board called the meeting to discuss plans for the upcoming school year. The board ultimately decided to start the school year with virtual learning.

Before the meeting got underway, someone made a comment using a racist epithet in the meeting chat, prompting Superintendent Dr. David Dude to end the meeting in that format and reconvene it as a webinar, in order to prevent further disruption.

The message said, “I hate ******.”

Decaturish is unable to determine if the person who made the comment is affiliated with CSD and whether they were using a real name.Dude and Board members Heather Tell and James Herndon expressed disgust and dismay at the comment.

“We’re not going to tolerate that,” said Board Chair Lewis Jones.

Board member Jana Johnson-Davis, who is Black, said, “As a community, this is about the fourth time we’ve experienced the n-word collectively, from racist videos to this comment in our chat.  We don’t know if this [the comment]  is something from our community or not, but just last week someone removed ‘black’ from the ‘Black Lives Matter’ message on the Renfroe marquis, and unfortunately black folks deal with these types of heartbreaking, racist actions regularly, and so for me, I have to become a little numb to it or else it can become overwhelming. But what I think is really important is if our neighbors, our coworkers, our friends, and the community let folks know that this is no longer going to be tolerated here in the city of Decatur, that this is a place for everyone.”

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Board Vice-Chair Tasha White, who is also Black, said she was hurt by the comment.

“I think maybe the longer I live, I will get to the point where I can become numb to it,” White said. “I pray for that day because I haven’t found that day yet. And as much as I don’t want to give energy to racist and ignorant comments, I’m also a human being, and I’m one of those human beings that that message was directed towards.”

White thanked Dude for stopping the meeting to address the message, because she said, “I was finding it very hard to focus on one pandemic with the other pandemic of racism sneaking in.”

“This is not a problem for one group of people to tackle, this is a problem for all of us to tackle,” said Dude.

It is the latest in a series of racist incidents that have occurred within the City Schools of Decatur community.

The incidents include a video of a white Decatur High School student waving a toy gun and making a racist threat, other videos of white Decatur High School students using racial slurs, and an incident where a white Decatur teenager confronted a black man at his house in Oakhurst.

Those incidents, as well as other racist incidents around the country, prompted several protests in Decatur which drew thousands of demonstrators.

The School Board has faced criticism from parents over the district’s response to these incidents.

Following the disruption, the School Board listened to a presentation by senior administrative staff on plans for the 2020-2021 school year.  Based on recommendations given in the presentation, the board voted unanimously to postpone the first day of school from August 4 to August 17, with a fully virtual enhanced program. Fall break, originally scheduled to be from September 21-25, will be canceled.

Assistant Superintendent Maggie Fehrman described the framework that CSD was using to evaluate whether and how to return to in-person learning.

Sources of information and recommendations include the Georgia Department of Education, the CDC, and the Georgia Department of Health.

Decisions are based on the evaluation of both spread of COVID-19 and the success of mitigation efforts.

Mitigation includes mask-wearing and hand-washing on an individual level and contact tracing and similar efforts on a community level, as well as the school’s ability to impose practices that would limit the spread of the virus. Barriers to the latter include state funding cuts to education, limited space and limited staff.

Executive Director of Equity and Student Support Lillie Huddleston pointed out that the numbers of new cases are trending up over time and are much higher now than they were when schools were closed in March.

Georgia Tech’s risk assessment model currently indicates that in a group of 25 people in DeKalb County there is a 65% risk that one person will have COVID-19

A full return to in-person school would require both effective mitigation and low spread. Currently, the spread is high and the mitigation level is ineffective, therefore the recommendation was made to return to school in a fully virtual format.  Meanwhile, preparations are in place for a partial return to in-person learning as soon as conditions change. Hybrid option A will mean that about 50% of students will return to in-person learning in school buildings, with about 50% learning in a virtual environment.  Hybrid option B will mean that less than 50% of students return to in-person learning, with priority given to students who have special needs that make in-person learning more crucial for them.

When in-person learning resumes, face masks or coverings will be required for all staff and students, and physical distancing will be imposed to the greatest extent possible. Students will be screened before they enter the school building and there will be procedures to isolate students who get sick at school until they can be picked up by parents. Students will be grouped together and schedules will be staggered to limit exposure.

Fehrman, the assistant superintendent, spoke about the need for staff and teacher support, recognizing their concerns and supporting their ability to work and carry out the plans CSD is choosing.

Staff pre-planning and training will start July 28 through Aug. 7. Community Building on Aug. 10 through Aug. 14 will include assessments for students, health and wellness checks, making sure students are prepared and have adequate supplies.

“We are collaborating with community partners to figure out ways to support parents who must go to work and can’t supervise their child’s education,” Fehrman said.

People who spoke during public comments were mainly concerned for students’ health and safety.

Carmonique Harris said, “I and my mother are cancer survivors. If my son has to choose between going to school and having a social life and keeping me safe, that’s a hard decision for a fifteen-year-old to make.”

At the same time, Harris said that families should be able to assess risk for themselves.

Darcie Bou, mother of a senior at Decatur High and a rising sixth-grader, asked, “Who is going to be the voice for the most vulnerable? I’m a stay at home mom, I can stay at home and do virtual learning, but that’s not everybody.”

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Meagan Ferguson, a  teacher, said, “I’m here to express my support for full virtual learning. COVID cases are spiking. Learning must come after safety.”

Board members acknowledged the complexity of the situation.

“Our priority being on equity work has never been more important.  This situation that we’re in is going to create an even wider gap where there already were gaps,” School Board member Tell said, noting that students with learning disabilities receive needed occupational and speech therapy at school. “Parents are saying that their children are regressing. It’s heartbreaking.”

“The hybrid option that brings in less than 50% is intended to serve those groups of students, and hopefully we will get there sooner rather than later,” Dude said. Decisions about when to move on to a hybrid option will be based on continued monitoring of community spread and mitigation efforts.

Jones, the School Board Chair, acknowledged the tension between the need for safety and the problems with online learning.

“There are no good options,” he said.

In addition to the lengthy discussion of plans for the 20-21 school year which dominated the meeting the board also voted to keep the tax rate at last year’s rate of 20.25 mills.

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