More than a month into her tenure as Atlanta Public Schools’ new superintendent, Lisa Herring, Ed.D., is preparing for a school year like no other amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
It will start with online classes as a precaution due to the pandemic.
“This is my second super seat, and this decision comes with being the super, period. It comes with leadership,” said Herring, who started July 1 after spending the previous three years as superintendent of Birmingham City Schools in Alabama. “… These are the most unprecedented times. These are not decisions just tied to the district’s core business of learning, and in some instances, in the worst-case scenarios, life and death.
“None of us could have been prepared for this. It’s a global pandemic. How does it impact the first month of my work in a city I’m not unfamiliar with? I’m learning about our Atlanta public schools and the desires of the community and the different voices. What’s been layered on top of it is making decisions that are literally life-changing, and that’s the great complexity of this pandemic.”
Herring, who started her new post July 1, replaced Meria Carstarphen, Ed.D., after the Atlanta Board of Education in September opted not to renew Carstarphen’s contract, meaning her tenure would end in June. Herring, a Macon native, completed her observational field work at the Atlanta district’s Therrell High School while getting a bachelor’s degree from Spelman College.
She has more than 25 years of experience in urban public-school districts across the Southeast, including stints with Georgia’s DeKalb and Bibb county districts, the Charleston County School District in Charleston, South Carolina, and Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Kentucky.
During Herring’s tenure with the Birmingham district, she has restored it to full accreditation after it was put on probation prior to her arrival. Under her guidance, the district also has improved its state-issued report card grade from an underperforming F to a passing C.
“Over the last six months, the APS community played a significant role in crafting the leadership profile the board used to identify potential candidates,” Atlanta district board chair Jason Esteves said in an April news release when Herring was named the superintendent finalist. “We believe with her passion for serving students paired with her focus on equity and achievement for all, Dr. Herring is the best leader to take APS to a new level and close the achievement gap for so many of our students.”
July 13, Herring announced via Twitter the Atlanta district’s first day of school would be delayed by two weeks to Aug. 24, it would begin the new school year with nine weeks of online-only instruction and would reduce the number of instruction days by 10.
The decision drew both praise and criticism from residents’ tweets. When asked about the move, Herring said she did it to keep the district’s students and staff safe in the pandemic.
“What I can tell you in general is I’ve gotten responses on both sides of the coin,” she said. “The majority of the responses I’ve received directly, whether via email, in person or otherwise, has been in support of our virtual opening. Yet there have been some who are in favor of starting with in-person instruction. Then there’s a third population where families and parents or guardians are sympathetic and provided some suggestions to consider. We’ve worked to be responsive to all of those.”
Back to virtual school
According to a survey recently conducted by the district and whose results were included in its reopening plan presentation at the July 14 special called board meeting, 66% of responding parents said they are “at least somewhat comfortable returning to face-to-face” classes.
Also, 72% of teachers and 67% of bus drivers responding said they were “at least somewhat uncomfortable returning to work in person,” and about 45% of teachers and bus drivers responding said they are at “high risk” for contracting the virus. Herring said the district will allow teachers to work from home even if its schools return to in-person instruction once the pandemic is diminished.
As the district’s staff prepares for going back to school, she said all students (nearly 53,000) will be equipped with devices (an iPad or Chromebook) and even a WiFi hotspot if they request it. The district will deploy those devices Aug. 17 through 21 to any students who don’t already have them.
As Herring and her team plan to start the school year with nine weeks of online classes, three levels of the virus’ spread will guide its decision making on possibly returning to in-person instruction beginning in late October, according to the district’s Reopening Strategy document.
If the virus’ spread remains substantial (more than 100 cases per 100,000 county residents), the district will continue virtual classes. If the spread is minimal or moderate (six to 100 cases per 100,000 county residents), it could resume face-to-face instruction in one of three ways: traditional (with schools open but implementing restrictions), hybrid (limited/staggered use of school buildings and student schedules) and full distance/remote learning (minimal use of school buildings and mostly virtual classes).
If there is low or no spread (one to five cases per 100,000 county residents), the district could completely return to in-person instruction. Herring, who said the district will continue to monitor the pandemic’s conditions and any changes to federal, state or local restrictions, said the latter scenario is possible.
“We would consider it and absolutely entertain it,” she said. “If we move from substantial to low, that gives us a greater level of confidence for the safety of our children and staff. With a dramatic drop, we certainly could do it.”
Herring said it’s “extremely important” to return to in-person classes as soon as possible but still safely.
“We’ve experienced a disruption we could have never planned for,” she said of the outbreak, which caused all schools nationwide to shift to a virtual format from March through the end of the school year. “We still have a responsibility to educate our children. We know in-person interaction is tied to the best-case scenario. That ties to an urgency to see our children.
“I don’t know a teacher that doesn’t miss seeing their students, seeing them smile, talking to families and doing all the things to participate in school. We miss that, and there’s a desire to get back to that sooner than later. But if we do it too soon, we’ll see more than our operational mission at risk but our children and others at risk, and I’m not willing to do that.”
When asked about her short-term goals, Herring said, “If we didn’t have a pandemic, my response would be very different. … In the short term, (the goal is) that we provide rigor and a quality of teaching excellence in a virtual world as long as we find ourselves challenged in a pandemic. The other end of that goal is to get back to human interaction.
“Moving away from the pandemic, I’m a superintendent of a public school system, and one of the things you must do is to get out in the district and get to know the students, parents and others. We want to hear the voices of the people we serve. I’ll be the first to say I will be the first to look at someone eye to eye and engaging with one other.”
Herring hopes to continue the momentum created by Carstarphen, who increased the district’s graduation rates from 59.1% in 2014 to an all-time high of 79.9% in 2018 before it dropped slightly last year to 78.0%. She had similar success with other metrics such as standardized tests.
“Focusing on graduation grate, school turnaround for our lowest-performing schools and to ensure access for all students, regardless of where they are when they need us, regardless of their level of success in school, whether they’re already gifted or haven’t tapped into that yet, that we understand,” Herring said of comparisons between her and Carstarphen.
She added she’ll also prioritize cultivating the district’s positive culture, something Carstarphen stressed during her tenure, and plans to focus on professional development to maximize teachers’ potential.
And as for Herring’s long-term goals?
“Long term, we have to pay attention to what this disruption has done for students,” she said. “… We have the opportunity over the next few months or year to rebound from the impact of the pandemic. The long-term goal is to champion the work our board has accomplished on equity and social justice, on student performance across the entire district and seeing more of our children graduate and leave the district better than when they started and go to college and become lifelong contributors to society, and to innovate along the way.”