DeKalb County Schools to delay opening citing high spread of COVID-19 cases
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By Sara Amis, contributor
Stone Mountain, GA — Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris told the DeKalb Board of Education on Oct. 20 that community spread of COVID-19 has not dropped low enough to justify a return to in-person learning.
“The safety of students and staff is our number one priority, and we will not be moving forward with a return to face-to-face until the data suggests that we are safe to do so,” said Watson-Harris.
Currently, the community spread of COVID-19 is an average of 118 cases in DeKalb County per 100,000 population over 14 days, according to the Department of Public Health. This represents a slight trend upward after the spread of the virus flattened in recent weeks.
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In the plan that Watson-Harris presented to the board in September, community spread is one of several criteria that her administration would consider before giving the order to return to class. The Centers for Disease Control and the Georgia Department of Public Health have offered guidelines that describe more than 100 cases per 100,000 of population averaged over a period of two weeks as “high community spread.”
DeKalb County Schools along with other neighboring school districts have relied upon those guidelines and numbers in order to try to determine criteria for a safe return to in-person learning.
Some board members expressed concern about adequate preparations for a return to the classroom even after case numbers have dropped.
“We’ve got to protect people, because if we don’t have people here to teach, and we don’t have children to come, we won’t have schools at all,” said School Board member Joyce Morley.
Watson-Harris said that the presentation of the plan and updates was so that it would be clear how decisions were being made.
“We’re not going back until it is absolutely safe to do so,” said Watson-Harris.
Stacy Stepney, Chief Academic Officer, presented the results of a survey given to students and parents as well as school district employees.
“While we were super excited about the responses, we learned later that there were some people who responded more than one time,” said Stepney. According to the survey, 66% of parents, 44% of students, and 82% of staff were uncomfortable returning to school in a traditional format. When asked about their comfort with distance learning, 71% of parents, 52% of students, and 82% of staff indicated that they were comfortable with continued distance learning. 41% of parent, 51% of students, and 29% of staff responded that they were comfortable with a hybrid learning model.
In a follow-up survey, 92.55% of staff indicated that they would be able to return to school when asked, while 7.45% indicated that they would not be able to.
Morley asked if staff would be held to their responses and stated that some feared punitive reactions to the answers. The superintendent and her staff clarified that this information was for planning purposes, so they would be able to know how many teachers would be available for in-person teaching.
“Telework is an option if you have an [Americans With Disabilities Act] accommodation,” said Stepney.
“This is a time when there has to be much love. I’ve never heard the word hate so much. This is not a time for hate, this is a time for love. People want to know that people care about them,” said Morley.
Stepney stated that the superintendent’s staff had conducted a town hall with district employees, and Noel Maloof, the Deputy Chief Operations Officer, said he planned one with maintenance and staff to explain the details of the safety protocols for the HVAC systems, and sanitation.
“I know the reality of our buildings. We are understaffed as far as maintenance people. What are you doing in terms of making sure you shore up the numbers?” asked Morley.
Maloof said that principals and staff have been in the buildings since June and July and were reporting issues that need to be fixed.
“I feel pretty confident where we are, I think we have a lot more work to do,” said Maloof. “I have presented a plan to HR, Finance, and the superintendent to work with our hiring freeze to bring in some additional staff. Like you and many others, I want to make sure we’re getting up to full strength and continuing to be fiscally responsible.”
Deputy Superintendent of Student Support Vasanne Tinsley outlined the district’s protocol for potential COVID-19 cases. If a student or staff member shows symptoms, they will leave the premises. If it is a student, their parents will be notified. There will be a location to isolate a student or staff member until they can leave campus. The Department of Public Health will be notified, and that department will conduct contact tracing.
Board member Stan Jester asked how the superintendent planned to fill the need if there were not enough teachers willing to return to the classroom. Watson-Harris said that her office would make that determination based on both the staff survey and the intent to return forms that parents are filling out, depending on the difference if any.
“Is our current plan to just keep going on and on using the current formula, even if it takes years?” asked Jester.
“This is an ever-changing situation. I would hope and pray that it isn’t something that is going to go into years or even the winter months, but we would have to explore the recommendations and guidance of the health department, the CDC, and our stakeholders at that time. I don’t anticipate us going into years with our current plan,” said Watson-Harris.
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“I want to commend you and your staff for having a plan,” said Board Chair Marshall Orson. He acknowledged that decisions will wait on the number of cases dropping, but said that he felt it was reassuring to have a plan in place.
“Hope will get us through this thing,” he added.
In other business, the Board declined to extend its contract with Gregory Doyle Calhoun and Rogers (GDCR) Firm for district-wide legal services through to October 31, 2021. The contract will go to month-to-month and discussion of the next steps will be taken up at the next executive session.
The Board approved the extension of a series of contracts with vendors including those for HVAC supplies, lawn equipment, and plumbing supplies. The Board also approved the purchase of $3,340,730 in new school buses.
Discussion of expanding the contract with Creative Group, the temp agency providing PR and communications staff, included Board members Morley and Jester both expressing the opinion that the district should not spend money on temporary staff when it would be more cost-effective to fully staff communications with permanent employees.
“I walked into a skeleton staff in the communications department and we do have a hiring freeze,” said Watson-Harris. The expansion of the contract to $25,000 per month was ultimately approved by the Board.
The Board also accepted the donation of 30,000 cloth masks for elementary and middle school students from Disney and 5000 cloth masks for students and staff members from Gas South.
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