070820_MNS_full_Herring_sworn_in Lisa Herring and others

Lisa Herring, right, is sworn in by Fulton County State Court Judge Patsy Porter, left, as Herring’s mother and daughter, front center, look on.

Citing a recent spike in COVID-19 cases, Atlanta Public Schools is delaying until January its plan to return to in-person instruction in a phased approach.

Instead, all of the district's students will continue to take online classes.

“The decision to further delay the in-person opening of our schools was difficult,” Superintendent Lisa Herring said in an Oct. 16 news release. “But after consulting with our teachers, staff, students, families and public health officials, I decided this is the right approach at this time.”

In July Herring announced the district would start school Aug. 24 instead of Aug. 10 and would begin the 2020-21 academic year with nine weeks of online classes as a way to deal with the pandemic. Atlanta, like other districts nationwide, held classes online in mid-March through May because of the outbreak.

According to the district’s reopening strategy posted to its website, the nine weeks of online-only instruction were to end Oct. 26, when Phase 2 was to begin and pre-kindergarten and special-needs students were to go back to school four days a week with one day of virtual learning. Phase 3, which was to start Nov. 16 (though it originally was to begin Nov. 2), was to include pre-K through fifth-graders plus sixth- through 12th-grade and special-needs students taking in-person classes four days a week with one day of online learning.

Phase 4, which was expected to begin Jan. 19 (though it originally was to commence Nov. 16), was to include all students going back to on-campus instruction unless they decide to opt to continue virtual classes. In all phases, students can take online classes. They have the option to have online instruction either with their own school or through Atlanta Virtual Academy.

The public health target data is more than 100 COVID-19 cases in Fulton County per 14-day average for Phase 1, with that number decreasing to six to 100 cases in Phases 2 and 3 and to 1 to 5 in Phase 4.

Students will be required to wear masks both on the bus and on campus, and all buses will be cleaned twice a day. Parents who can transport their children to school should do so.

According to the release, the district decided to stick with online-only instruction until January after

monitoring and tracking COVID-19 health data that is trending unfavorably, consulting with public health officials and healthcare experts and securing data to determine both feasibility and stakeholder feedback.

The district plans to provide monthly health data checkpoints and present the next update at the Nov. 2 Atlanta Board of Education meeting. The district will also continue its efforts to support its most vulnerable learners, including low-incidence special needs students and its youngest students.

The district each day checks the COVID-19 data published by the Georgia Department of Public Health (https://dph.georgia.gov/covid-19-daily-status-report).

“Despite downward trends in recent weeks, our community has seen recent increases in new cases, resulting in a current average that exceeds 130 new cases per 100,000 county residents,” the release stated.

The district stated part of its decision to remain with online classes was based on the results of the Intent to Return Declaration form sent to the families of 38,397 students at its preK-12 traditional schools, with a deadline of Oct. 12 to fill out and return it. (The district’s charter and partner students, which represents an additional 10,000-plus students, did not participate in the process).

More than 22,000 families (58%) submitted their forms by the deadline. Of those submitting the forms, 10,460 expressed their intent for their children to return to school if the district were to resume in-person instruction. That’s less than half the people who filled out the form.

There are three schools that had more than 60% of students declare their intent to return in person. All three of these schools were elementary schools in the North Atlanta High cluster: Brandon, Jackson and Smith.

The district had 16 schools where less than 20% of students declared their intent to return in person. As a cluster, North Atlanta had the highest percent of students declare in person with 42%, compared to the Mays High cluster, with only 19%. The 16,200 families that did not return the forms were defaulted to site-based virtual instruction.

“There’s no question that this pandemic has affected our students and so many of us in different ways,” Herring said. “Our most vulnerable students have been hit hardest, which is why we have implemented more deliberate outreach efforts, including but not limited to daily phone calls directly to parents and guardians of students when they are not logged on or do not remain online throughout the school day; and at-home visits when students have not logged-in over a three- to four-day period of time or if staff are unable to contact parents of students who are consistently not remaining logged-in.

“In addition, we have followed through on the commitments we made this spring to distribute internet-connected devices to families across the district and partner with organizations that offer support for students who need them most.”

The district stated students have been logging on to virtual classes at an average rate of 95% each week. Herring said the district continues to support its teachers as it sticks with online instruction.

She also announced the district’s plan on Twitter, and individuals responding to the news both praised and criticized the decision.

“Thank you Dr. Herring for making the safe choice for our teachers and students! We support you!” one said.

Another said, “So every other county just doesn’t know what they’re doing? Pretty arrogant and they seem fine.”

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