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Decatur Schools plans to bring Pre-K through 5th grade back on hybrid schedule

COVID-19 Decatur

Decatur Schools plans to bring Pre-K through 5th grade back on hybrid schedule

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FILE 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
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City Schools of Decatur has announced its plans to return on Jan. 19. For more information, click here. Here is our earlier story …

By Sara Amis, contributor 

Decatur, GA — Superintendent David Dude and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Maggie Fehrman during the Sept. 8 School Board meeting presented a plan to start returning City Schools of Decatur students to in-person learning in stages, beginning with Pre-K and K-5 students.

Dude plans to meet with his staff again on Wednesday, Dec. 9, before releasing final metrics and possible return dates.

Under the plan, Pre-K students will attend two full days in person with one day of virtual learning.  Kindergarten through fifth grade will have the opportunity to attend core academic classes in the morning during a four-hour half-day, in cohorts of no more than 15.  Special and intervention classes will be offered virtually in the afternoon. Grab and go lunches and breakfasts for the next day will be provided.

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Schedules will be changed as little as possible while accommodating requests for virtual learning for both students and teachers. Fuhrman stated that given current requests, they should be able to offer classes 5 days per week, however, if they can’t maintain social distance they will go to a split schedule.

Grades 6-12 will continue with virtual learning for now. The district will continue with full virtual schooling for K-5 students whose families choose it.

Small group sizes, mandated mask-wearing, and social distancing in classrooms was recommended by the COVID-19 planning committee in order to control the risk of transmission at school even as community transmission rates remain relatively high, but following some of those recommendations makes planning for upper grades more difficult.

“Setting our cohort size at 15 makes it almost impossible to operate in a high school setting,” said Fehrman, adding that middle school may be doable with a slightly larger cohort size.

Dude stated that the plan was presented to the Teacher’s Advisory Board and that he thought they saw it as a good compromise. The district will provide PPE for teachers and go above and beyond federal and state regulations for leave so that teachers will not lose sick days.

Buses will be sanitized and masks will be required. Parents will be encouraged to find alternate ways to get their students to school if possible.

Dude sought feedback from the Board about specifics of metrics and dates of return before finalizing those aspects of the plan. Board members were strongly divided. Board Chair Lewis Jones expressed a sense of urgency to return students to the classroom, while other board members including Vice Chair Tasha White, Jana Johnson-Davis, and James Herndon, expressed concern that community transmission rates are currently at the CDC’s highest risk level and continuing to trend upwards.

Jones argued that the district must balance concerns about the physical health of staff and students with mental health and their primary mission of education.

“We’re one of 10 school districts in the state of Georgia who are not back in the classroom. We’ve got the best mitigation strategies we can buy,” said Jones.

Johnson-Davis among others pointed out that community transmission rates were the highest since July and that would inevitably lead to cases in the schools.

“We’re following CDC guidance and they say that Pre-K-5 can go back safely, but their rubric ends at 200 [per 100,000 of population over 14 days] and we are at 365.  I’m not comfortable going back at this level,” said Johnson-Davis.  “Mitigation strategies are not fool-proof, they just reduce risk.”

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Both White and Jones expressed concern that students who are struggling are not being helped.

“I’m disturbed at some of the e-mails I’m seeing where parents are saying that they have reached out to teachers, principals, Dr. Dude, and heard nothing,” said White.

Jones said that the district needed a plan for those students, especially the older students who are likely to remain virtual for now.

Public comment was also divided.

Several parents said that their children were struggling with virtual learning to the point that they were reluctantly making plans to move out of the district or send their children to private school. Others asked why CSD formed a committee of experts if their advice was going to be ignored.

Kanika Sims said that families of color were at higher risk for COVID-19 and more likely to live in intergenerational households with at-risk family members. At the same time, she said, they are aware of achievement gaps and other factors that might press them to send their students back to in-person learning. Rather than being committed to a decision for the rest of the year, Sims felt that parents should be allowed to change their minds about virtual vs in-person learning at specific points.

Gabriel Richardson is a Decatur High School student who stated that he has learning disabilities and is struggling online, but thinks that disregarding metrics and CDC guidance is “irrational.”

“Just because schools aren’t the epicenter for spread doesn’t mean we can disregard it,” added Richardson.

Dhwani Batra pointed out that the community at large has ignored cautions about holiday travel and gatherings, contributing to the current spike in cases.

“All of us together have to make the sacrifice so that our kids can go back, but we’re not doing that,” said Batra.

White said everyone is interested in returning to school but there are disagreements about how and when that should happen.

“We all want our kids to go back to school and be safe. Where perspectives differ is how to do that,” said White. She said that community members on all sides of the debate have said that they don’t want board members to be pressured by a vocal minority, but that the truth is that the opposing factions are equally vocal and of roughly equal size.

“There is no small minority voice,” said White.

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