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New Decatur School Board chair reveals COVID-19 diagnosis as CSD set to return to school

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New Decatur School Board chair reveals COVID-19 diagnosis as CSD set to return to school

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Tasha White. (FILE PHOTO)
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By Sara Amis, contributor

Decatur, GA — Tasha White, the newly elected chair of the City Schools of Decatur Board of Education, attended January’s regular meeting via Zoom. White stated that she had COVID-19 and turned the meeting over to outgoing chair Lewis Jones because she was experiencing symptoms that interfered with her ability to speak at length.

“I want to say thank you to the board for accepting me as your chair, I’m really looking forward to sitting in this seat. I thank you for putting your trust in me,” said White.

Board member Heather Tell was elected Vice Chair.

“I look forward to working with you Tasha,” said Tell.

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Students in Decatur have attended schools virtually since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Superintendent Dr. David Dude offered an update on the district’s plan to return some students to the classroom starting Jan. 19.

He said that some members of the community have questioned why students weren’t back much sooner, while others think that it’s too soon to return.

“Throughout this pandemic we have been learning on the fly what works and what doesn’t, how the virus behaves and what we can do to mitigate the risk. I am confident that we are well poised to implement those extensive mitigation measures to keep our students and staff safe,” said Dude.

K-5 students will return for half days of face to face instruction. Cohorts will stay separated and the limited hours will mean that students will not have to eat at school. Masks will be required at all times. Dude said that KN95 masks would be provided for any employee who wants them.

“I am disappointed that we are going back at this time with the numbers higher than they’ve ever been,” said Board member Jana Johnson-Davis. Davis pointed out that nearby hospitals are full and that DeKalb County School District has delayed a return to face-to-face learning.

Dude responded that the DeKalb County school district’s plan did not include the same amount of strict social distancing.

Tell spoke of the difficulty of navigating the situation when both the community and board were very divided.

“I do support Dr. Dude and his staff with this plan because I know that every effort has been made to thoroughly address the educational needs of our students and to implement extensive mitigation methods,” said Tell.

White also supports the plan.

“I wish the numbers in our county were better, but I am happy with some things we are doing differently from other school districts,” said White.  She mentioned small cohorts, half days, keeping grades 6-12 virtual, and accommodations for teachers.

“I stand by David and his staff,” White added.

Public comment was divided, although most parents advocated for a delay in returning to the classroom. Dr. Kanika Sims, a physician who was on the mitigation subcommittee, stated that while she had great confidence in the mitigation strategies being used by the district, she did not believe they would be sufficient to protect students and staff at the current level of community spread.

“While I may not be able to convince CSD not to go back to school at the worst possible time, I want to encourage parents who are facing a decision whether to return their children to school, to remain virtual in order to protect their families,” said Sims.

Dr. Roland Hamilton, a neurologist, said he treats many patients with stroke who have had COVID-19.  He urged that CSD remain closed for now.

“I can’t emphasize strongly enough how much our health care system is overburdened,” said Hamilton.

Several students expressed their opposition to the elimination of Wellness Wednesdays from the schedule, especially for those who will continue virtual learning. Patricia Robinson, a student at Decatur High School, said, “I use that time to catch up on my work and also to take a break for myself, because school is very stressful.”

In other business:

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– Lonita Broome, CSD’s Executive Director of Finance, offered an overview of budget projections for FY2022.

Austerity cuts reduced Quality Basic Education funding from the state of Georgia for FY2021 by 10%, a shortfall of $3.3 million that CSD chose to cover from reserves rather than cut teacher salaries.  However, a combination of that reduction in revenues and expenses associated with the COVID-19 pandemic means that CSD has drawn a total of $11.2 million from the reserve fund.

If all normal expenses remain the same for FY2022, excluding pandemic-related expenses that should not need to be repeated, and the austerity reductions in QBE remain the same, CSD will have to draw approximately $5.3 million from the reserve fund, reducing it to approximately $235,000. The budget relies on Georgia State’s projections for tax revenue and assumes that the new version of the senior homestead tax exemption will pass in 2021.

“This is a very preliminary budget and is a worst-case scenario,” said Broome.

CSD received about $1 million in federal CARES funding, and may receive another $45,000 from the first CARES Act. CARES II may provide another $1 million, a figure not yet included in the district’s budget projections.

The district spent $1.3 million on supplies and equipment related to the pandemic, about $1 million on hiring additional staff, and spent $1 million retaining employees whose jobs could not be done virtually.

Possible future costs associated with the pandemic are likely to include remedial programs to help students catch up who have fallen behind.

Cuts to the budget might include delaying cost-of-living and/or step increases for staff or cutting programs that have low attendance.  Possible sources of revenue include accepting tuition-paying students, selling property the district has acquired, or raising the millage rate.

In order to make up for the reduction in QBE funding and avoid drawing on reserve funds without cutting the budget, the district would have to raise the millage rate from 20.25 to 21.64.

“We’re short almost exactly the austerity cuts,” said Jones. “We need everyone listening to advocate with the state to restore those QBE funds.”

Dude compared state funding of schools during the pandemic to the stimulus packages. The austerity reduction in state funding hit school districts statewide in the same year that unforeseen expenditures related to the pandemic also hit. Tax revenues have also slowed down, while ongoing expenditures are likely to be unpredictable.

“Now is not the time to cut the funding,” said Dude.

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