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You can’t always get what you want. But can you get what you need in APS?

By Maureen Downey, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga (CNT)

Atlanta’s reopening plan is creating confusion among parents, consternation among teachers.

You can’t always get what you want

But if you try sometimes, you find

You get what you need

– Rolling Stones

The release of an updated reopening plan for Atlanta Public Schools has many parents pondering need vs. want in their decision-making on whether to return their children to schools starting the end of this month.

APS released an update Friday that was then explained by the APS superintendent at a school board meeting Monday. The plan is creating confusion among some parents and consternation among teachers.

Three options now exist for APS families:

Continue virtual learning with your school.

Return to face-to-face on Oct. 26 four days a week for special-needs students in self-contained classrooms and pre-k with fifth grade. On Nov. 16, grades 6 to 12 would then return.

Join the Atlanta Virtual Academy and remain online for the school year.

Families have to complete an intent survey by Monday, Oct. 12. If they don’t complete the survey, their students will remain virtual. APS teachers filled out intent forms last month, but those forms presumed a return to face-to-face classes with fewer days and grades in play. Teachers are not happy about the expanded scope of the reopening plans.

As teachers point out, the first survey on whether they would return to physical classrooms was due back Sept. 27. Then, APS released its updated 96-page plan where pre-K-5 students return four days a week, as opposed to two days. One teacher said:

This was the first time teachers got to see this plan. They used our responses to show teachers were okay going back but those responses were based on the old plan presented to us previously and then used against us in the presentation. Very few teachers I know are okay going back under this new plan.

– APS teacher

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In a follow-up virtual Facebook session Tuesday sponsored by the Council of Intown Neighborhoods and Schools, APS board members Cynthia Briscoe Brown, Leslie Grant, Michelle Olympiadis elaborated on the options and answered parent questions.

“With respect to the options, I really think the message needs to be heard that this is about need; if your child needs to go back to in-person and not if you want to go back in-person. I know everyone wants to go back to school. I know my children want to go back to school,” said Michelle Olympiadis. “It is a family decision but I really hope families think of this as the need of their child.”

Until she heard the presentation by APS leadership Monday, Olympiadis planned to send two of her three kids to school, but told parents she now plans to keep all her children in virtual classes.

There appears to be no concise definition of what constitutes justifiable “need.” There were multiple mentions of students and families who “need support,” although I assume most families in Atlanta could use some support during this pandemic. And there appears to be a lot of angst among some parents about whether their own “need” is significant enough to send their children back. (As one parent observed during the Facebook discussion, need vs. want could prove divisive.)

So, how do parents assess need vs. want, especially, as several parents commented on the Facebook discussion, they lack the information to render an informed decision?

Olympiadis recommended parents talk to teachers to determine what’s in the best interest of their child. Or, in the case of children with special needs, to the full support team, she said (School staffs are reaching out to those families they feel in their professional assessment ought to return their children to in-person classes now, according to board members.)

“We do know there are children with IEPs, 504s, that need to have in-person accommodation,” said Olympiadis. “Children suffering with anxiety and depression who need to be in a different environment because they are not thriving through a virtual environment would be something of consideration.”

She also shared her own personal process. “Is virtual ideal for my three children? No, I want my children to go back to school. But is there truly a need for them to go back? No, there is not. We will stay the semester through virtual earning as a family. Let me be clear. When you do decide to make your decision on our survey, it will be binding through the semester, and the semester will end Jan. 19.”

After both the Monday board meeting and Facebook session, which I listened to twice just for my own clarification, I understand why parents are struggling with what to do because of the unknowns.

Among the questions for which no firm answers emerged. Will families know who the teachers are before their kids go back? Will it be a surprise when they walk in? What if APS has too many kids seeking to return? Are teachers going to have teach both in-person and online students at the same time? (I hope not; that is not working, according to most teachers in other districts trying to do so and wearing themselves out in the effort.)

The board members said many of those questions could not be answered until the “intent to return” forms are completed so schools have accurate head counts.

Board member Leslie Grant told the Facebook audience, “There is no way to know what it’s going to look like when people go back. People need to be very realistic about what’s going to happen and it is going to be very fluid. Anybody searching for that certainty before they fill it out, I would encourage you not to do so.”

“If everyone decides to send their child back in person – which I really don’t anticipate is going to happen, but it could — the accommodations in terms of COVID and distancing and spacing are not going to accommodate a full school of children to return back in-person,” said Grant.

“A, I hope it doesn’t happen because as I just don’t think that’s a smart thing to accommodate right now,” Grant said. “But, B, if it does, there will clearly have to alternate plans made about how that physically looks.”

Board member Cynthia Briscoe Brown addressed parents who expressed concern about the teachers fearful about returning to the classroom. “The best way to support that would be for your child to continue virtually,” she said. “Because the fewer teachers we need in the classroom, the more stay virtual. Please do consider carefully not only your individual family’s needs, but take into account the larger community.”