DeKalb County School Board members push back as superintendent presents reopening plan
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This story has been updated.
By Sara Amis, contributor
Stone Mountain, GA — In a Sept. 14 presentation to the DeKalb Board of Education, new Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris and members of a COVID-19 Re-Opening Task Force outlined the criteria that will be used to make decisions about when and how schools will re-open to traditional in-person learning.
The superintendent’s presentation included a tentative date of Oct. 5 for hybrid learning to begin, which met with resistance from board members who argued that there’s no assurance transmission will have slowed enough to allow in-person learning to resume.
Based on information from the Georgia Department of Public Health, the DeKalb Board of Health, and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, Watson-Harris defined three levels of COVID-19 transmission based on the number of cases per 100,000 residents in a 14-day period: 1-5 cases per 100,000 county residents is “low/no spread,” while 6-100 cases is considered to be “minimal/moderate spread.” More than 100 cases per 100,000 residents in a 14-day period is defined as “substantial spread.”
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“Our plan is based on data and is conservative because the health and safety of our staff and students is our number one priority,” said Watson-Harris.
As of the Sept. 14 meeting, COVID-19 transmission was 124 cases per 100,000 for the last 14 days, per the DPH and the DeKalb Board of Health.
As long as transmission remains at a substantial level, distance learning will continue. However, a graph of COVID-19 cases in DeKalb County over the period from July 28 to September 12 shows a downward trend.
“Although we have given dates, they are contingent on the numbers trending down and staying below that 100 per 100,000 mark. I just want to make sure that’s crystal clear,” said Watson-Harris. Once the transmission rate drops below that threshold, the district will notify teachers that the first hybrid phase will begin a week later.
Hybrid schooling will begin with staff on campus for two days each week, and continued distance learning for students. One day of face-to-face instruction per week will be added for 2nd, 6th, and 9th graders, with other students coming in for one day a week four days later.
Assuming that cases continue to trend downward and reach the required benchmarks, more days of face-to-face instruction combined with distance learning and independent study will be added until the traditional five day week of face-to-face learning returns at the end of November. During the hybrid phase, Wednesdays will be reserved for providing face-to-face services to special education and 504 students.
Athletic activities including football, cross country, cheer, volleyball, and softball will begin practicing with social distancing protocols Sept. 15. Competitions are planned to begin on Oct. 1.
Auxiliary groups, marching band, and JROTC will begin practice in pods Sept. 15 and after-school practice Oct. 5.
Other extracurricular activities will be conducted as hybrid schooling opens, divided into student cohorts.
Parents and guardians will have the option to have their children continue distance learning after other students have returned to class, with an opportunity to return to face-to-face instruction after each 4.5 week grading period.
COVID-19 cases on campus may result in targeted closings, while a spike in community cases may result in the district reverting to an earlier stage of hybrid learning or a return to distance learning.
“We are a large district, and it’s important that we monitor closely. We do have some hard-hit areas,” said Dr. Michelle Jones, regional superintendent for region IV.
Masks will be required for students while in the building and on the bus. Bus drivers will be provided with masks and face shields. Hand sanitizer will be provided in high-traffic areas, as well as an increased inventory of cleaning supplies, paper towels, and soap. Increased ventilation and classroom layout will follow DPH guidelines.
“Grab and Go” meal service will continue during the hybrid phases, along with a combined hot meal service. The district has received a USDA waiver that will allow them to provide student meals at no cost for the rest of 2020.
The presentation originally projected Oct. 5 as a possible date to begin hybrid schooling, but the board as a whole pushed back vigorously against setting a date, even tentatively, before the transmission numbers definitely dropped.
“I appreciate you looking at the data, the numbers, the science, and not making a premature decision,” said Board member Vickie Turner. “I’m a ball of anxiety because I don’t want to lose any lives. I know there’s a lot of pressure, we’ve all felt it. I want us to make a prudent decision about whether this is the right time.”
Several board members expressed concerns about how prepared the district really was to re-open and who would be adversely affected. Turner pointed out that the areas in south DeKalb which are showing up as “hot spots” for COVID-19 are also the ones where parents were least likely to drive their children to school, making social distancing plans for the buses difficult to execute.
Board member Diijon DaCosta echoed Turner’s concerns, saying “We have over 80,000 students of color in our school system, and COVID-19 has affected people of color more than any other demographic.”
Several board members stated that the staff had communicated that they did not feel safe returning to the classroom.
“I just want to implore you and your leadership team to be very cognizant of where our staff is,” said Turner.
Board member Allyson Gevertz agreed, saying that while she heard concerns from parents about their children’s need to be in school, “The most important factor in a student’s experience is the effectiveness of their teacher.”
Board member Dr. Joyce Morley said that the district’s infrastructure was not adequate to meet the guidelines for increased ventilation and sanitation required to return to school safely.
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“I know the state of our buildings, and I’m not for this at all,” said Morley. “Most of the hot water is off in the buildings, Let’s be realistic about this. It would take millions of dollars to get the system where it needs to be. Money we don’t have.”
Morley said that she felt certainty was better than uncertainty or the possibility of opening schools only to have to close them again.
“[Atlanta Public Schools] is standing firm, they made a decision. These schools should have been virtual until at least December. Let’s not bow to pressure,” said Morley.
Board Chair Marshall Orson also voiced concern about having to backtrack on in-person learning if COVID-19 numbers spike.
“A lot of these universities have gone back and then had to shut it down,” said Orson.
Morley said bluntly that she did not want blood on her hands.
“All of us have some stakes in the game, children, grandchildren, husbands, wives. Let’s make sure we do this right,” said Morley.
While the district has given out Chrome Books in order to ensure students have access to online learning, an evaluation shows that 11% of DCS students have not logged on to the Virtual Learning Environment.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted a school board member, Joyce Morley, regarding another school district’s reopening plans. She was referring to Atlanta Public Schools, not City Schools of Decatur. This story has been updated with the correct information.
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