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When pressed, DeKalb County Schools declines to cite metric in reopening decision

COVID-19 Metro ATL

When pressed, DeKalb County Schools declines to cite metric in reopening decision

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Photo provided by the DeKalb County School District.
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DeKalb County, GA — When news first broke that DeKalb County Schools had set a date for a return to in-person learning, the media reported that a new metric was being used in making that decision.

DeKalb County Schools have been virtual since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Previously, the school district was determining whether to reopen based on the number of cases per 100,000 people. Anything less than 100 cases per 100,000 was deemed a green light to begin the reopening process. But the Atlanta Journal Constitution last week reported that positivity rate was now the metric the school district would use to determine whether to reopen on Jan. 19.

The AJC reported, “Positivity rates greater than 10% will require online-only learning for all students, according to the new metrics.”

The district didn’t dispute that reporting or its citation in Decaturish. And a presentation given to staff appeared to support that assertion. Here’s a slide from the presentation shared with Decaturish:

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But that metric doesn’t appear anywhere on the district’s website or in its official communications regarding reopenings. Staffers who spoke to Decaturish said it was their understanding that schools would reopen on Jan. 19 no matter the rate of community spread or positivity rate for COVID-19 cases.

Decaturish put this question to the district, and the district declined to provide a clear answer about whether a high positivity rate will derail the district’s reopening plans. Here’s the full statement provided via a district spokesperson:

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These are uncharted waters for the DeKalb County School District. The future response to the COVID-19 pandemic is extremely difficult to predetermine and must be situational. The District values all employees and is collaborating with staff to provide flexible options and alternate work assignments when needed.

Revised CDC guidance suggests that school decisions relative to COVID-19 not be made by any single indicator. “Multiple variables must be considered.” (CDC, 2020). Per the CDC’s guidance, the positivity rate is utilized as one of the indicators to assess the “risk of transmission” in the school.  The focus of the assessment is to implement mitigation strategies and response to illness plans to the greatest extent possible to minimize spread in the school and community. 

Per the CDC’s guidance, please be advised that school district officials are reviewing all available COVID-19 data/information daily and collaborating with health officials.  Although the number of COVID-19 cases has increased, DCSD’s leadership, with guidance from the COVID-19 Task Force, CDC, and DeKalb County Board of Health, agrees that we must be vigilant and focus on the mitigation strategies to reduce transmission and prepare for re-opening schools in January 2021. As we plan to return to face-to-face learning, any significant changes relative to the status of COVID-19 will be discussed and considered.  At that time, the Superintendent reserves the right to revise the plan, particularly if there are suggestions from health officials or executive orders from government leaders. 

Decaturish again asked the spokesperson whether a specific positivity rate is being used in determining whether to reopen schools. This story will be updated when the district responds.

Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris’ newsletter sent to parents today reminds them that the choice to return to in-person schooling is optional and also includes links to articles about other school districts that have reopened despite the surge in COVID-19 cases. Here is her full letter to parents:

Greetings DeKalb County School District Family,

It’s hard to believe we are approaching the end of 2020. So many of our stakeholders are looking forward to beginning a new year and grateful to start anew. Thank you to all of our scholars, families, staff, and community stakeholders who have remained committed and continued to give their best this year.

Part of the hard work our staff has done was mentioned in an article published on WABE’s website: https://www.wabe.org/school-districts-show-compassion-for-atlanta-students-who-miss-class-during-the-pandemic/. I want to thank the reporter, Martha Dalton, for highlighting the work that our Student Support Services Department has done to make sure the needs of our students and families are met during this pandemic.

As we prepare for 2021, my hope is that you will continue to put your best foot forward as we plan for optional face to face instruction for students. After careful consideration of the effects of COVID-19 and school closures on teaching and learning, DeKalb County School District (DCSD) will begin its re-opening process on a staggered schedule on Jan. 4, 2021, with staff returning to school buildings. Students in grades Pre-K, 1st, 2nd, 6th, and 9th grade will have the option to begin in-person learning on Jan. 19, 2021. To review our letter to parents and parent calendar, please click here: www.dekalbschoolsga.org/school-reopening

Many have asked why we are deciding to plan for face to face in January. The District’s decision tree has evolved based on updated guidance from the CDC including the positivity rate and the ability of schools to implement the five key mitigation strategies to lower the risk of transmission of COVID-19 in schools.

The CDC’s five key mitigation strategies to further reduce the level of risk of COVID-19 introduction and transmission inside the school are:

– Consistent and correct use of masks

– Social distancing to the largest extent possible

– Hand washing

– Cleaning and disinfecting

– Contact tracing in collaboration with DeKalb Board of Health

We encourage students to practice some of these strategies now so that when re-entry begins mask-wearing, social distancing, and hand washing are familiar and second nature.

Re-opening Phases
Phase One of the re-opening begins the week of Jan. 4-8, 2021 with faculty and staff returning, to include teachers teaching virtually from the classroom. In Phase Two, the District will begin phasing-in students Jan. 19, 2021, the first day of the second semester. Phase Two includes students in Pre-K through second grades, sixth grade and ninth grade students. The remaining grade levels will phase-in on January 25, 2021, following a hybrid model during Phase Three of our plan.

Employees and Alternate Work Assignment
Our staff’s health and safety are of utmost importance to me and your wellbeing is essential to supporting our scholars and district. Thank you so much for your hard work and resilience as we navigate these unprecedented times. If you have a unique situation that you would like to discuss, please reach out to your principal or regional superintendent or Chief or Deputy.

– Region 1 Superintendent Melanie Pearch: melanie_l_pearch@dekalbschoolsga.org
– Region 2 Superintendent Trenton Arnold: trenton_arnold@dekalbschoolsga.org
– Region 3 Superintendent Dr. Sean Tartt: sean_r_tartt@dekalbschoolsga.org
– Region 4 Interim Superintendent Dr. Antonette Campbell: antonette_campbell@dekalbschoolsga.org
– Region 5 Superintendent Dr. Triscilla Weaver: triscilla_r_weaver@dekalbschoolsga.org
– Region 6 Superintendent Pamela Benford: pamela_benford@dekalbschoolsga.org
– Region 7 Superintendent Dr. Rodney Swanson: rodney_f_swanson@dekalbschoolsga.org

Alternate work assignments may be provided as an option for employees who qualify for accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Employees requesting an ADA accommodation will have an HR Specialist assigned to see their application through to completion. Employees, who believe they have a medical condition and qualify for ADA accommodationsmust complete an ADA application and provide supporting medical certification to begin the process.

Again, parents will have the option of continuing virtual learning or returning to face-to-face. DCSD will continue to offer high-quality instruction in a concurrent learning environment, which will support students in either setting-distance/remote learning and in-person learning. The District will continue to communicate with families as we move forward with the implementation of the return to school plan as well as provide mental health support for staff and students. For additional information about the re-opening plan and to stay up to date on current re-entry news, please visit the reopening site as well as our FAQ section at https://www.dekalbschoolsga.org/school-reopening/faq/.

Around the world, families are deciding whether re-entry is the right personal choice for them.  Here are some articles I’d like to share regarding re-opening and its impact on our nation and school districts worldwide.

Back to school: Many large districts are opening their doors again: https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/school-districts-reopening-coronavirus/2020/10/19/3791c952-0ffb-11eb-8074-0e943a91bf08_story.html

Kids are now in school at majority of nation’s biggest districts – just as COVID cases surge:  https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/education/2020/11/01/school-covid-cases-us-surge/5992498002/Going Back to Virtual Learning: The Challenges of Reopening High Schools: https://www.edutopia.org/article/going-back-virtual-learning-challenges-reopening-high-schools

Reopening Schools: Three COVID-19 Risk Mitigation Strategies for Students, Teachers and Families: https://www.pennmedicine.org/updates/blogs/penn-physician-blog/2020/september/fitzgerald-back-to-school-reopening-schools-during-the-covid19-risk-mitigation-strategies

Special thanks to the Board of Education, the COVID-19 Think Tank, the DCSD Medical Advisory, the DeKalb County Board of Health, and the CDC for all of your support as we have navigated virtual learning and prepared for the reopening during this pandemic. Our village has been strong and kept our scholar’s and student’s safety at the forefront of our decision-making. Also, thank you to all of our families who attended the virtual Family Town Hall meeting on Dec. 14 to listen in and to provide feedback. All of your input is important whether you will remain virtual in January or return to face-to-face instruction.

In preparation for the holidays, the safest way to celebrate is at home with the people you live with every day. Gatherings with family and friends who do not live with you can increase the chances of getting or spreading COVID-19 or the flu.

Click here for some tips from the CDC on how to stay safe during the holiday season.

As you prepare for winter break, a new year, and the reopening of schools, may your time be filled with hope and excitement for what next year will bring. Be well DCSD family. Until we meet again next year!

Your #1 Cheerleader,

Cheryl Watson-Harris

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