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Decatur City Schools teachers protest planned return to classroom

By Ty Tagami, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga

Some teachers in Decatur say they are surprised by what feels like an about-face in their school district’s approach to the coronavirus, as it prepares to follow other districts that have reopened classrooms.

As happened in other districts, most recently in Fulton County, the decision has spurred protest.

Dozens of teachers and parents gathered in a field across the street from the City Schools of Decatur administration center Tuesday afternoon to oppose the change in direction for a district where school has meant Zoom sessions and online homework since the fall semester started in August.

On Friday, the school district emailed a written announcement to parents — and Superintendent David Dude spoke in a video recording shared with teachers — revealing a new plan to gradually return willing students to the classroom. It will start with pre-kindergarten and special education students on Oct. 12, with others returning over a three-week period beginning Nov. 2. Families can also choose to stay home and continue online classes.

Officials will continue to monitor public health data, such as the COVID-19 infection and hospital occupancy rates, the note to parents said. “If the data suggest it is unsafe to return to (or remain in) school, we will adjust our plans accordingly.”

Teachers who attended the protest said this was a jarring development given prior statements by Dude about whether it was safe enough to return to in-person schooling.

“We were on the same page because we thought we were looking at the data in the same way,” said Heather Byars, who teaches English at Renfroe Middle School. “But I guess we weren’t.”

Haley Stevens, a mother of three, was among the supporters. Helping her twin kindergartners and her second-grader through their school days at home has been difficult, she said, but as a scientist by training she felt the teachers’ concerns were valid.

“We love our school and we love our teachers and want to support them,” she said.

District officials did not provide comment by deadline Tuesday, but shared a copy of a letter they sent to employees that evening. It noted COVID-19 cases in DeKalb numbered a third of what they were a month ago. Also, although 85% of teachers surveyed were concerned about returning, just a third thought virtual schooling was “as valuable” as in-person, as did fewer than a quarter of parents and students.

According to a portion of the minutes of a teacher advisory council meeting last week at the city’s high school, Dude said he hoped to time a reopening in a way that made teachers feel “comfortable.” The administration was “trying to avoid what other districts are doing,” said a passage of the minutes forwarded by a Decatur High teacher.

“And the next day, we got this video forcing us back to work,” said the teacher, who is concerned about returning with Type-2 diabetes and asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.

The announcement to parents cited public health data showing a relatively high, yet falling rate of coronavirus cases in DeKalb County, where Decatur is located. Hospitals had beds available.

That was not convincing enough for Nicole Blakemore, a Renfroephysical science teacher who wore a mask emblazoned with the periodic table of the elements. She worries about infections spreading in classrooms, many with failing air handling units, where children will be removing their masks to eat lunch.

“I don’t understand what data Dr. Dude is referring to when he says he feels it’s safe,” she said.