Atlanta Public Schools’ students, who have taken online classes since August due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will return to in-person instruction in phases starting Jan. 25, the district’s superintendent said.
The move comes after the district was criticized by some parents and praised by others, plus teachers, for sticking with online classes this fall, when many other local school districts returned to face-to-face instruction.
“These are not easy decisions but are necessary ones. I emphasize that you look at your families’ (situations) and what works best for you and your children,” Superintendent Lisa Herring told parents as they decide whether to keep their kids in online classes or opt to return to in-person ones.
Herring spoke at the district’s Dec. 3 virtual town hall meeting, which was held on Facebook Live due to the outbreak.
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. Phases 3 through 5 were to start in November through early 2021.
But in October, citing a rise in COVID-19 cases, Herring announced the district would delay returning to in-person classes until January.
At the town hall, she said the district was opening an intent-to-return window on its website Dec. 3 through 21, when parents could fill out a form to decide whether to send their children back to face-to-face instruction or remain with online classes.
Parents who have already completed the form when they were asked to earlier this fall do not have to resubmit their plans, and students whose parents don’t fill out the form by Dec. 21 will default to staying with virtual instruction, Herring said. The district’s charter and partner schools will contact those students’ parents to explain their options, she added.
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.
Under the district’s plan for Phase 2, students will return to in-person classes on the first day of the second semester. To prepare, teachers will go back to their schools Jan. 19 and spend a week instructing their students from their classrooms. Students and staff must wear masks and will be socially distanced.
Special-needs and pre-kindergarteners through second-graders will return to school Jan. 25, and students in grades 3-5, 6, 9 and 10 will return to campus Feb. 1. Students in grades 7, 8, 11 and 12 will go back to in-person classes Feb. 4.
For each group of students, their in-person class schedule will be for Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. On Wednesdays, the district will have asynchronous or independent learning, in which instruction will be offered online only, including independent learning and intervention.
Also on those days, staff will conduct professional learning and student intervention, teachers will have planning and prep for simultaneous instruction, the district will deliver meals for students and schools will receive deep cleaning.
Phases 3 through 5 will follow later in 2021.
Herring and her adult daughter caught COVID-19 in November but have since recovered.
“Because of the anticipated surge (in cases), we are all watching the numbers,” she said. “… I’ve been trained to not walk in fear, but I also know we must look at what’s in front of us. … I am one of the few superintendents that has tested positive for COVID, so I make my decisions through that filter.”
During a Q&A session at the end of the meeting, Herring was asked if the first CDC indicator the district uses to determine when to reopen schools would be eliminated since some individuals believe it relies too heavily on one metric to make its decisions.
According to a document posted to the district’s website, there are three CDC indictors for dynamic school decision-making. The number of new cases per 100,000 persons within the last 14 days is the first of three indicator and has five risk levels, with the lowest risk for transmission in schools being less than five and the highest being more than 200.
The second indicator is percentage of RT-PCR tests that are positive during the last 14 days, from less than 3% to more than 10%, and the third indicator is the ability of a school to implement five key mitigation strategies, with the lowest level being implementing all five strategies correctly and consistently and the highest being implementing no strategies.
“No, we’re not doing away with it, Herring said. “(The number of new cases) per 100,000 is still part of our consideration, but the number one factor for us to consider reopening schools at this point is our ability to safety mitigate safety and health risks: wearing masks, constant washing hands, sanitizing and washing buildings, social distancing. We’ve added to that COVID testing and news regarding vaccinations.”