Atlanta Public Schools, the DeKalb County School District, and the Clayton County Public Schools recently announced plans for the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. All three school systems plan to begin the year virtually, based on current public health data on the spread of the coronavirus in metro Atlanta.
The districts said they followed guidance issued by the Georgia Department of Education in June, which said schools should stick with remote learning if the coronavirus has reached a level of “substantial” spread in their communities.
Public health officials have defined “substantial” spread as more than 100 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 county residents. However, updated guidance from GaDOE focuses on infections that occur in schools themselves as opposed to the surrounding community.
A Delayed Start
School district officials across Georgia and the U.S. have emphasized that re-opening plans could change, as cases of COVID-19 increase or decrease. The Cobb County School District, for example, has changed the first day of school from Aug. 3 to Aug. 17 to give teachers and staff more time to prepare. The district has also pushed back its deadline for parents to decide whether they want their children to learn remotely or in-person in the fall.
The Gwinnett County Public Schools has also delayed its first day of school, switching from Aug. 5 to Aug. 12. Gwinnett County has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the state. Because cases have been on the rise, the district has canceled in-person graduation ceremonies scheduled for July 13-19. Face coverings will be required for teachers and students who choose in-person instruction. For now, families are still able to choose face-to-face or remote instruction.
On Monday, the DeKalb school board approved a plan to delay the district’s first day of school from Aug. 3 to the 17. Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris presented a re-opening proposal that has students and teachers beginning the year learning remotely. The board delayed a vote on the plan since the spread of COVID-19 could change before school starts. If conditions improve, officials said, the board could consider a hybrid plan where schools alternate days at school and days at home learning remotely.
“This proposal is based on the data available to us at this time, but we are making a commitment to continue…to revisit the plan and make any adjustments that are needed,” Watson-Harris said.
DeKalb’s plan includes providing new Google Chromebooks to students who don’t have digital devices.
Atlanta Public Schools also plans to begin the year remotely. The school board gave initial approval to a plan to push back the first day of classes from Aug. 10 to Aug.t 24. Chair Jason Esteves said the board will vote on the calendar change again at its August meeting in case conditions change.
“It could be that in two weeks we see that the numbers go down dramatically and that we can go to a hybrid model or we could go to a traditional model if cases decrease significantly,” he said.
In the meantime, APS is working on a plan to provide digital devices and internet access to students without service through a campaign called Get Our Kids Connected. Superintendent Lisa Herring said the district is also working on a plan to provide free meals to students who need them.
An APS-focused parent group called Atlanta THRIVE issued a press release applauding the district’s decision to delay the beginning of the school year and to begin the year remotely. The group recently issued a document it’s calling a ‘parent manifesto,’ asking for changes from the district. Among other things, the group wants APS to focus on closing the digital divide for students and to develop an individualized learning plan for each student in the school system.
“Going forward, we must ensure that technological tools are delivered and activated on time,” Executive Director Kimberly Dukes said in a statement. “We must strive to ensure that teaching is not a one-size-fits-all and embrace individualized learning plans to meet the specific needs of each child. We also must view these issues not just through an instruction lens, but an equity one.”
The Clayton County school board modified the district’s reopening plan Monday. The district had planned to start the school year with a hybrid learning model, where students and teachers would alternate in-person classes with remote learning. However, the board decided to start the school year remotely and to delay the first day of classes to Aug. 10 instead of Aug. 3.
“This has certainly been an unprecedented time for all of us, we thank all stakeholders for their patience as we collectively navigate this new reality,” Clayton Superintendent Morcease Beasley said in a statement. “Regardless of the method, we know that children will have to be educated, and we are here to serve and support our students and their families.”
‘We’re Operating…in Quicksand’
For now, Fulton County Schools is staying with its plan to offer most students a choice between virtual learning and face-to-face instruction. During a called board meeting Tuesday, Superintendent Mike Looney explained why the district isn’t changing course.
“I feel it’s extremely important not to make a quick shift at this time and I want the board and the public to know that nobody…has influenced my thinking about what is right as it relates to political expedience or ideology from the governor’s office all the way down,” he said.
Fulton had already pushed back the first day of school to Aug. 17 to give teachers and staff more time to prepare. Looney admitted the district’s plans could still change, depending on COVID-19.
“The reality of it is we are operating almost in quicksand,” he said. “I was on a call [Monday] and between two calls, the [public health] information that had been shared with me changed. And I want to get this right.”