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Virtual learning in DeKalb County likely to continue due to spike in COVID-19 cases

COVID-19 Metro ATL

Virtual learning in DeKalb County likely to continue due to spike in COVID-19 cases

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DeKalb County School District Administration and Instructional Complex on Mtn. Industrial Blvd. in Stone Mountain. Photo by Dean Hesse
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By Sara Amis, contributor 

DeKalb County, GA — During the public comment period at the Dec. 7 DeKalb County School Board meeting, several parents spoke in support of returning to in-person schooling, especially for younger grades and children with special needs.

Jamie Schwartz said, “I can’t sit back and let you change the entire trajectory of my child’s education and future. DeKalb’s youngest students are struggling.”

However, according to the district’s existing COVID-19 plan, DCSD is still in the distance learning phase and is likely to remain so in the near future.

Community spread above 100 per 100,000 population over 14 days is considered high according to the recommendations used to create the plan. Community spread in DeKalb County is currently at 332 per 100,000 over 14 days.

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Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris said that she would be willing to consider other metrics including positivity rates based on guidance from the Department of Public Health and the CDC as it is forthcoming.

“Returning to the school building is not a one-size-fits-all model,” said Watson-Harris. Over the next few weeks, her office plans to meet with their medical advisory board to discuss new research on how COVID-19 spreads among children, hold town hall meetings, consider a timeline to allow staff to work in classrooms and office areas, and consider a hybrid schedule.

Watson-Harris stated that she was hopeful based on stated preferences that the district would be able to accommodate both teachers and students who wished to return as well as those who wished to remain virtual, although some students might need to change teachers.

“I want parents to know that we hear what you are saying.  This isn’t a plan that we put on a shelf and are just waiting around.  This is a weekly process.  We are still in a space where we continue to make tough decisions,” said Watson-Harris.

However, COVID-19 infections are spiking rather than subsiding.

“No matter how you slice it we are still in the high community spread category,” said Watson-Harris.

In other School Board business:

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– A previous decision to reallocate special purpose local option sales tax funding towards upgrading HVAC systems in preparation for a potential return to in-person learning received strong pushback at a recent town hall.

It also received pushback during public comment at the School Board’s Dec. 7 meeting.

Parents stated that needed repairs to Hawthorne Elementary’s 60-year-old plumbing could not be delayed any longer. The school is located at 2535 Caladium Drive NE in Atlanta.

“Children are afraid to use these bathrooms and are holding it until they get home,” said commenter Angela Mackie.

Several parents described toilets backed up and overflowing into the hallways and raw sewage bubbling up in the playground. Mackie said that the community had been promised repairs with each SPLOST vote that often did not materialize.

“We have been paying our pennies and it’s time for you to keep your promises,” she added.

DeKalb County Schools Deputy Chief Operations Officer Noel Maloof stated that after his department heard from parents the funding for Hawthorne Elementary’s plumbing repairs was restored and no funding for schools in the $561 million SPLOST V project would be reduced.

Board member Dr. Joyce Morley emphasized the importance of making sure that promised repairs would be delivered and distributed equitably.

“How are we making sure that the funds are going to be there and schools won’t be slighted? Nobody should be on the short end of the stick,” said Morley.

“The quick answer is that this is the next step in that,” said Maloof.  “We’ve got a $2.2 billion need and we’re in the millions each year to try to fix that. We’re going to keep plugging away at it.”

School Board member Allyson Gevertz praised Maloof’s professionalism along with that of DCSD’s new chief financial officer Charles Burbridge.

“I appreciate your willingness to call our baby ugly. The estimates we’ve used to make some of these plans are not right and we need to hear this,” said Gevertz. She added that realism was necessary to repair public trust and do better going forward.

“Getting SPLOST V correct at the front end is critical to getting SPLOST VI right. I’m confident that it will be thoughtful and we will not be making promises that we can’t keep,” added Gevertz.

– Burbridge offered a monthly financial report, stating in response to a question from Board member Stan Jester that he believed the district’s finances were “on track.” He added that his office would present a full financial report in January.

– Watson-Harris and her staff presented Measures of Academic Progress data for 3rd through 8th grades. 80% of students were tested, a lower percentage than other years because of the number of parents who opted out.  Overall, the third graders tested showed progress over 2019 scores in both math and reading, the middle grades showed small increases in “beginner” and “developing” learners in both areas, and the results for 7th and 8th grades were mixed, with 7th graders making more progress in reading overall and 8th graders making more progress in math.

Board member Vickie Turner asked how the district could close the gap for students affected by the pandemic.

“I’m concerned that we still have children that are not connecting. I’m concerned that we still have children that are not mastering,” said Turner.

“What we hope people are taking away from this presentation is that we know where the students are academically. We know where the gaps are,” said Watson-Harris

– Watson-Harris announced some changes in her cabinet.

Michelle Jones, who had been the Region IV Superintendent, is now interim Chief Human Resources Officer, while Dr. Antonette Campbell is taking over as Region IV Superintendent.  Portia Kirkland was the interim director and is now officially the Director of Communications.

– The December 7 board meeting was the last one for outgoing members Stan Jester and Dr. Michael Erwin.

“As we know, this seat is not mine, it’s the county’s. I appreciate the people who put me here to serve their will.  I appreciate each and every one of you,” said Jester.

“I’d like to thank the people of DeKalb County, the citizens, who have allowed me to serve their children for the last seven and a half years,” said Erwin.

Board Chair Marshall Orson said of the departing Board members, “You have both brought to this position grace, compassion, and understanding.”

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