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Atlanta school district delays reopening classrooms

By Vanessa McCray, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

(CNT) City News And Talk #atlanta-ga

Atlanta Public Schools will not resume in-person classes until January, the superintendent announced Friday.

Officials had planned to allow some special education students and students in prekindergarten through fifth grade to return Oct. 26. But that step was contingent on the number of COVID-19 cases. The marker the district is using has shown an increase in cases in recent days.

A few days ago, the uptick in cases prompted APS to delay this week’s scheduled return of more employees to office buildings and triggered Superintendent Lisa Herring’s decision to delay students return. 

“This decision comes after our continued monitoring and tracking of COVID-19 health data that is trending unfavorably, consultation with public health officials and healthcare experts, and data secured to determine both feasibility and stakeholder feedback. Given this current information and careful consideration, we will continue with the current virtual model until at least January 2021,” she wrote in a Friday blog post.

Herring said the district will “explore ways” to provide some level of in-person support sooner to certain special education students and the district’s youngest children, but APS announced no concrete plans.

“I want you to know that we have considered many different voices throughout this process. But at this juncture, I want to encourage unity across our school community as we work collaboratively through this pandemic and continue to put our students and staff first,” she wrote.

In the hours before the announcement, pleas and recommendations came from those on different sides of what has become an intense debate.

Some parents want APS to give students the option of returning to classrooms, pointing to other metro Atlanta districts that have opened. They cited the social, emotional and academic benefits of being back in school buildings.

But others, concerned about the health of teachers and students, urge caution.

The group “We Demand Safety APS” called on the district to wait until January to resume in-person instruction. The group formed after the district announced earlier this month an expanded reopening plan that included more grade levels and more days of in-person learning than officials initially proposed.

They also want the district to implement testing and contact tracing procedures and provide face shields and other protective gear for employees. Organizers said more than 3,800 parents, employees and community members are part of the effort.

Officials also are hearing from those who think it’s time to reopen. More than 2,900 people signed an online petition organized by the group” Let Atlanta Parents Choose,” which wants an in-person option.

Across much of the district, roughly a quarter of students indicated they want to return, though there are parts of the district where the interest is higher.

In the North Atlanta cluster, which includes North Atlanta High School and the elementary and middle schools that feed into it, 42% of students plan to return if permitted, according to data provided by APS.

In a statement released Thursday, board member Nancy Meister, who represents North Atlanta, suggested APS roll out “a pilot program in limited schools with limited grades for families that opt for face to face.”

Meister acknowledged the complexity of the reopening decision, but said the district “should be further along in planning and implementation.” She said she hopes APS can plan for a “safe face-to-face opening” that follows health guidelines.

As APS prepared to announce a decision, parents who favor reopening also urged the district to reconsider the data it relies on.

APS officials are looking most closely at the local “incidence rate,” or number of new cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period. The target to reopen school buildings is less than 100 cases per 100,000 residents.

That rate, as calculated daily by the Georgia Department of Public Health, has trended higher since early October. Today, it was 139 cases per 100,000 Fulton County residents.

Some parents are concerned the metric doesn’t accurately capture the current level of the virus’ spread. They’ve called on APS to use additional data points.

APS parents sent numerous letters to the state health department, asking the agency to calculate that rate by the date of symptom onset, not just by the date a case is reported. The agency received so many messages that its commissioner, Kathleen Toomey, sent a letter Wednesday to APS defending how the agency calculates the data.

Toomey also reiterated that data trends “are just one factor” that districts can consider when deciding to resume in-person classes. She said districts also should consider mitigation strategies. State guidelines say those strategies could include social distancing, cleaning and mask wearing, which APS plans to require.