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Revised Atlanta schools reopening plan provides more in-person options

By Vanessa McCray, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga

An updated Atlanta Public Schools reopening plan will expand in-person options so that more students can spend additional time in classrooms beginning Oct. 26.

The district on Friday released Superintendent Lisa Herring’s latest recommendation — a 96-page document— which she will present to the school board Monday. While board members will have a chance to provide feedback, Herring will make the decision on how and when school buildings reopen.

APS shifted to online classes in mid-March as the coronavirus began to spread. The district started this school year in Augustwith virtual only classes. The reopening plans are contingent on public health data.

Some parents criticized a draft plan released a few weeks ago, saying it didn’t include enough opportunities for families who want to resume face-to-face learning. Although the revised plan doesn’t go as far as some parents wanted, it is closer to full-time, in-person instruction.

“We consider it a huge win. I mean if we can get kids back in school four days a week that is a major change to everyone’s lifestyle,” said Kacie Brown, the mother of a kindergartener and second grader. She started a private Facebook group called Let Atlanta Parents Choose.

The district initially proposed that students in prekindergarten through second grade could choose to return to buildings twice a week. Certain special education students could opt for in-person classes four days a week.

Friday’s update expands the in-person option to allow students up to fifth grade to return to school buildings four days a week starting Oct. 26. Wednesdays would be reserved for at-home independent work, providing time for mid-week cleaning and for teachers to complete training.

Also new on Friday, the district announced that middle and high school students would be given the option of returning to in-person classes four days a week starting Nov. 16.

In a Friday interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Herring said that expanded in-person options came about after she heard feedback from teachers and instructional experts about how to best schedule the school day. She also acknowledged hearing from parents who wanted more options, though she said she’s also heard from those who feel safer at home.

“We recognize that it is still a need for us to continue virtual as an option for our students,” she said, adding that “there are parents and families who have expressed their desire to return.”

Students in all grades will continue to have the option to stay enrolled in virtual classes taught by teachers at their school or to enroll in the district’s full-time online Atlanta Virtual Academy.

A vocal contingent of parents have campaigned in recent weeks for more in-person options for students. More than 2,800 people signed an online petition. They put up a billboard in Midtown.

Brown said she had to leave her job working in community outreach for her church in order to help her young children with virtual school.

Parents have been frustrated by what they saw as inadequate and incomplete district plans. Some viewed it as hypocritical that APS allowed high school sports to continue while not allowing in-person learning. District officials said they wrestled with that decision and relied on guidance from the Georgia High School Association. They said they wanted to make sure student athletes wouldn’t lose scholarship opportunities.

Chris Fitzgerald, a mother of two middle school students, wanted an in-person, full-time option but said she’s “happy to compromise.”

”I really want to get my kids back in school as soon as possible and obviously one day of working online is a whole lot better than five,” she said.

Face-to-face lessons will be far superior to online classes, which she said were interrupted almost daily by technology issues. She also cited the social benefits of having her children back in school and feeling more connected.

The move to reopen buildings drew concern from Atlanta Federation of Teachers president Verdaillia Turner.

“This pandemic will not last forever,” she said. “But when a child is dead, when a teacher is dead, a parent is dead that will last forever. So don’t be pressured to open schools back up.”

The district reported that 72% of school-based employees indicated they are able to return this month. Teachers who are not assigned to in-person classes will have the option of working from their empty classroom with a supervisor’s permission, according to the plan.

Parents need to declare by Oct. 12 which option they have chosen for their child for the remainder of the first semester, which ends Jan. 15.