Nine days after Fulton County Schools’ students entered the first phase of its plan to fully return to in-person classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the debate over how quickly the district goes back to face-to-face instruction continues.

“We all get a ton of emails, and with the emails I’ve gotten, it’s been split with some saying we’re going back to in-person learning too fast and others saying we’re not doing it fast enough,” District 2 Fulton Board of Education member Katie Reeves said.

Reeves and others spoke about the issue at the board’s monthly meeting Sept. 17 at the South Learning Center in Union City.

Fulton originally planned for in-person instruction to start the 2020-21 academic year. But a July rise in coronavirus cases prompted the district to decide to begin the school year Aug. 17, a week later than originally planned, with online classes until Sept. 8, when it implemented Phase I of its reopening matrix.

Under the five-phase plan, the district would slowly shift from virtual instruction to in-person classes. In Phase I, grades pre-K through 2 would have 90 minutes of face-to-face instruction each week, special education students would have 180 minutes of in-person classes one day per week and grades 3 through 12 would have one-on-one sessions with teachers weekly by appointment.

Based on a recent decline in COVID-19 cases, the district plans to skip Phase II and move into Phase III (one full day of face-to-face instruction per week for all students) Sept. 21, Phase IV (two full days of in-person classes per week for all students) Oct. 5 and Phase V (full face-to-face instruction for all students with an online option for the ones not ready) Oct. 14.

Since school started, all the district’s teachers have instructed their students remotely from their own classrooms, with some exceptions. Fulton’s reopening plans have worried some teachers, prompting a group of them to protest outside Riverwood International Charter School during their lunch break Sept. 17.

During the meeting’s public comment portion, an East Point resident spoke in favor of the teachers concerned about returning to full face-to-face classes.

Superintendent Mike Looney, who said he was disappointed with the protest, added the district’s choices to return to in-person classes were not politically motivated.

“I want to say no board members have asked me to do anything about these decisions,” he said. “They’ve expressed their opinions but haven’t made any demands. I have not made these decisions based on politics. I have truly done this based on the science. I hate that we’re so divided in our community on this issue.

“… I do expect we’re going to have cases here and there until this virus is a thing in the past, but we can all manage it. Finally, just for clarity, masks are required for anybody that enters a Fulton County Schools facility, whether it’s a student, parent or staff member. If they fail to comply, they’ll be asked to leave.”

Looney said the district opted to skip Phase II because the data on COVID-19 cases supports it. Under the reopening matrix, the county must have a new diagnosis rate of less than 150 per the previous 14 days per 100,000 residents.

“The good news is the trend is going down,” Looney said of the number of Fulton pediatric COVID-19 cases, including both the Atlanta and Fulton school districts. “There’s a 5% positivity rate, which is considered by all organizations to be a low level of spread. Aug. 31 through Sept. 13, we were at a rate of 103.46 (new cases). That’s really, really good news.”

Also at the meeting, the district released the findings of its recent survey on universal remote learning and the shift to in-person classes.

Ryan Moore, the district’s executive director of strategic planning, said this survey had triple the number of respondents compared to the one Fulton conducted in the spring on its response to COVID-19.

According to the district’s website, the new survey included participation from 15,728 parents, 4,754 staff members and 2,886 students.

When parents were asked, “How likely are you to continue with remote learning when the district returns to face-to-face instruction?” 44% said they would return their children to school, 37% said they would opt them out and 19% were undecided.

Of the teachers who responded to the survey, 46% said they agreed the district provided the tools and resources they needed to deal with the pandemic, but only 15% agreed they were comfortable switching between remote and face-to-face classes.

The survey also stated elementary school teachers had the highest readiness level with switching from virtual to in-person instruction, and high school teachers had the lowest.

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