Decatur superintendent holds town hall to answer questions about reopening schoolsFILE PHOTO USED FOR ILLUSTRATION PURPOSES: The City Schools of Decatur Board of Education. Top row, left to right: Superintendent David Dude and School Board Chair Lewis Jones. Bottom row, left to right: School board members James Herndon, Tasha White (Vice Chair), Heather Tell and Jana Johnson-Davis. Image obtained via City Schools of Decatur
By Sara Amis, contributor
Decatur, GA — City Schools of Decatur on Nov. 19 held the first of three Superintendent’s Town Halls to discuss the district’s plans for a return to in-person schooling.
Schools have been closed since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The school district in October backed away from a plan that would’ve seen students and staff return on Oct. 19 following teacher and parent rallies against the idea.
COVID-19 cases are currently going up in DeKalb County. CSD has a COVID-19 data dashboard on its website that will be updated regularly with information from the Department of Public Health.
Thoughtexchange.com was used prior to the town hall to allow community members to pose questions and rate each other’s questions so that group priorities would rise to the top. The most popular question was, “When will you announce the plan for January?”
Superintendent David Dude stated that the final report would be finished over Thanksgiving break and released the following week. After seeking additional feedback at a teacher advisory session and the Dec. 3 town hall, the district will announce plans sometime during the first or second week of December. Dude acknowledged the urgency for both parents and staff to be able to make decisions in a timely way and said the district was trying to balance that need with the possibility of changing circumstances.
“We know that the new administration coming into Washington has already formed a COVID team, and we are eagerly anticipating what that team might do. We need to remain flexible in case they come out with new recommendations or requirements,” said Dude He added that he was pleased to see that new vaccines were showing promising results and expressed hope that they would become available in the spring.
The second most popular question was, “What are schools doing to protect teachers and staff who are at high risk?”
Dude stated that the district was focusing primarily on mitigation measures, including personal protective equipment, masks, shields, plexiglass dividers, cleaning protocols, and alterations to the HVAC systems in the schools.
The district also has an accommodation process for staff. Assistant Superintendent Maggie Ferhman stated that there had been about 150 requests for accommodations, most of which the district had been able to meet with alternative mitigation approaches. About 50 staff members requested to continue to work remotely. Fehrman stated that those staff members go through an ADA process in which alternatives are discussed and doctor recommendations are also considered.
In response to a question about matching students who prefer virtual learning to teachers who prefer to teach virtually, Dude said that it might be possible to do that. Winnona Park Elementary Principal Ruth Scott said that it would likely require moving students around and that for elementary school students who are used to staying with the same group all year it would be a bigger adjustment than for older students.
“We would have to let go of our attachment to our classroom community to some extent,” said Scott.
The district is in the process of hiring more teachers and support staff to allow for contingencies, hybrid classes and smaller class sizes. Fehrman emphasized that if the community spread increased such that some teachers had to quarantine, the district would need more staff to step in.
“It’s our whole community that it’s going to take to make this happen. Even if we are doing everything right within the school district, if we can’t staff our classrooms, we can’t function,” said Dude.
The second and third town halls will be held on Dec. 3 and Dec. 10.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the school district would release its reopening plan on Dec. 3. The school district says that a date has not been set, but that the plan will be released sometime after Thanksgiving. This story has been updated to reflect this information.
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