City Schools of Decatur school opening plans taking shape amid spike in COVID-19 casesEmpty playground at Talley Street Upper Elementary School on October 21, 2020. Photo by Dean Hesse.
By Sara Amis, contributor
Decatur, GA — The Decatur School Board and Superintendent on Dec. 3 discussed the COVID-19 Stakeholder Planning Committee’s report.
Superintendent David Dude held a town hall and the City Schools of Decatur Board of Education held a work session that focused on plans to reopen schools amid a spike in coronavirus cases.
The report was written by more than 60 community members including local experts in public health as well as parents and CSD staff. It covers what metrics to use in order to determine when to open safely, mitigation procedures to prevent spread of the virus during in-person schooling, virus testing procedures, communications, and the distinct needs of parents, teachers, and students.
Dude stated that he would have a firm plan to present to the Board at the next scheduled meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 8, and hoped to incorporate any final feedback by the following day.
“We absolutely will announce something before we go into holiday break,” said Dude.
Reflecting strongly divided public opinion, the metrics subcommittee offered two different sets of recommendations.
Report A recommends continuing to base decisions on level of community spread of the disease, along with other factors including availability of hospital beds, with the highest level of community spread starting at 50 new cases per 100,000 of population over two weeks.
Previous benchmarks used by CSD and neighboring school systems have ranged from 100 to 150 cases per 100,000. Neither CSD nor DeKalb County School District have re-opened to in-person learning since schools closed last spring.
Report B recommends basing decisions to open or close schools on spread within the school system, citing evidence that spread within school districts using mitigation is low. The report states that committee members do not support opening when community transmission rates are “unacceptably high,” but does not define what that means.
Board members questioned what number qualified as unacceptably high, and how current trends would affect the possibility of opening any time soon.
“Everything is showing us that things are going to be pretty crazy in the next three months,” said Board member Tasha White.
Dude stated that he would seek to clarify with the committee members, but that he believed that they would all agree that 200 cases per 100,000 was too high.
“Our county right now is at 253 or 255,” said Dude.
Board members acknowledged that whatever decisions are made will have long-term consequences. Board chair Lewis Jones spoke of the academic and mental health impact of missing an entire year of school. Board member Jana Johnson-Davis expressed concern about long-term health impacts and the mental health effects on students and teachers of the disease.
“I’m concerned about bringing students back into the buildings at the height of this epidemic,” said Johnson-Davis.
The mitigation report indicated that procedures already in process would be effective.
“We have exceptional mitigation procedures ready to go,” said Board member Heather Tell.
Tell spoke in favor of basing decisions on what is happening in each school, pointing out that New York City Schools had abandoned a city-wide metric in favor of focusing on the schools.
“I think we’re failing many of our students,” said Tell.
Board members discussed mealtimes as one of the biggest risk factors because masks can’t be worn while eating. Half-days so that students would get face-to-face interaction but would not eat at school was suggested as a possible solution. Meals would be sent home with students.
Dude was optimistic that when conditions allow it, the number of students wishing to return to in-person learning vs virtual would largely even out with the number of teachers wishing to return, although it would require a reshuffling of some classes.
He also said that he believed that existing classrooms would be adequate to accommodate a socially distanced class.
“For most of our classrooms, ten is about half the class. Given that most of our responses were about fifty-fifty [parents wishing to have their student return vs those wishing to remain virtual] hopefully we can accommodate all of those who say they have to send their kid back,” said Dude.
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