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After nearly five weeks of virtual learning, Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Lisa Herring presented a potential reopening plan at a special school board meeting Sept. 23. Dr. Herring stressed the proposal is still a work in progress, and the final decision will be guided by both public health data on COVID-19 new infections trends and community input.
“We recognize the concern and urgency to get our children back to school,” Dr Herring said. “We share that goal. It is simply our goal to do that well, to do that safely and to do it with health, as well as education in mind.”
In the proposal, special education students and students in Pre-K through second grade would have the option to return Oct. 26 for face-to-face learning in a hybrid model.
According to the proposed hybrid model, pre-K through second grade students will be split into two groups by last name. The first group will return in-school for the first two days of the week, and the second half will go in-person on the last two days of the school week. The other three days each group is not in school, they will participate in virtual learning.
The return dates for students in third to twelfth grade have not been determined, but Herring said APS is committed to providing dates for the return of these grade levels at the next board meeting on Oct. 5.
Even if the hybrid model is put in place, students will still have the option to continue virtual schooling.
“Choice needs to continuously be emphasized because there are different desires as it relates to opportunity from parents,” Dr. Herring said. “But it is important to note that it is our goal absolutely to include grades three through twelve coming back within this Phase II approach with a date that doesn’t extend late into the semester.”
The goal is to get students learning in person with teachers in schools safely and as soon as possible.
“I just want the community to know that’s our goal,” Dr. Katika Lovett, assistant superintendent of student services, said. “We are committed to that. We are partnering with the community and those efforts.”
Public health data from Atlanta and DeKalb and Fulton counties is the key indicator in guiding any reopening decision.
Atlanta currently falls under the substantial level of spread category, meaning there are more than 100 new positive cases per 100,000 people. New cases would have to drop below 100 per 100,000 people across 14 days for in-person school to begin. If infections trend back up, school will return to a full virtual model, according to the proposal.
According to Dr. Lovett, there are three levels of spread. Substantial spread, where COVID cases are over 100 per 100,000 residents within a county, mild and moderate spread, is where COVID cases are six to 100 per 100,000 residents, and low to no spread, where one to five cases are reported per 100,000 residents.
“We are trending in the right direction.” Dr. Lovett said. “And as the public health conditions improve, and we see these trends happen, then we’re able to explore more instructional models.”
When students do return, the district proposes several safety precautions, including a mask-wearing mandate.
“The decision regarding masks was a decision we made back in August, and actually required the wearing of masks as a part of dress code,” Dr. Lovett said. “That’s mask wearing for both teachers and mask wearing for students.”
In addition to masks, APS said students will have their temperatures checked before entering schools and social distancing will be required throughout buildings. School buildings will be deep cleaned several times during the week, including on Wednesdays, the transition day that separates in-person learning for the two groups of students. Multiple sanitation stations throughout schools will be set up, as well as wall-mounted sanitizer stations placed inside classrooms.
Staggered release times for classes will be imposed to reduce crowding in common areas like hallways. Water fountains will not be in use.
If a student shows signs of sickness, Dr. Lovett says isolation rooms will be used. If a case is confirmed at school, classrooms could close, schools could close or people will simply have to quarantine, depending on the circumstances of the case.
“Essentially if a person is deemed to be COVID positive, be it a student or staff person, the key piece of that is that we work with our local board of health,” Dr. Lovett said. “Once that individual is identified, it is recorded to health services and to human resources. On the health services side, we do reach out to public health, who does contact tracing.”
During the public comment section of the Wednesday meeting, community members weighed in on the proposal with questions, some of which could not be answered as details are still being worked out. Some parents were frustrated at the lack of specific answers from district representatives to some questions.
“The community would love more background, more protocol, more everything on paper,” said Board Member Leslie Grant. “How are they [the district’s COVID committee] thinking through things, what are they talking about, what are their sources, what are their data.”
The community will have another chance to voice opinions starting at 6 PM today at a virtual town hall. The town hall will take place on the APS Facebook page. Several town halls are also planned for APS employees earlier today.
“We want everyone to be part of the conversation and the discussion as we consider the proposed plan to bring our students back to our schools,” Dr. Herring said. “We recognize that there are a variety of questions and opinions out there, and we are poised to be in tune to those positions.”
APS also wants parents to complete a reopening survey that will come out in English tomorrow and in Spanish on Monday, Sept. 28. Families can express their choice to return to hybrid in-person learning or to remain virtual.
“This data will be critically important because it drives our decision making for capacity and planning for in-person learning,” Dr. Herring said. “We are asking all parents, regardless of where you currently fall in this proposed reopening plan, to complete the survey.”