Almost one week after their Jan. 19 return to working in school, Atlanta Public Schools teachers took to the streets of downtown Atlanta on Jan. 25 to demand that APS delay their reopening plan.
With parents and community members, the teachers marched on the same day that students in pre-kindergarten through second grade and in the special education program returned to school.
Protesters marched around the district office and waved handmade signs as a parade of cars drove in a continuous loop around the block, honking to show their support. Art teacher Rebecca Smith had a very simple reason for not wanting to return to in-person learning: her personal safety.
“I don’t think going back to school is safe,” Smith said. “I don’t think face-to-face [instruction] is safe with the numbers increasing. APS is not listening to the teachers, and that is why we are out here.”
Smith pointed to what she sees as a lack of transparency with the administration.
“They need to show us how they are cleaning the building and safety precautions,” Smith said. “They are saying a lot, but they are not producing a lot; so, I just don’t believe it at this point. My life is not worth the risk.”
This somber attitude was shared among protesters. Tracy Pendley, an instructional coach at Burgess-Peterson Academy and the 2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year, said she and her colleagues are being forced to choose between “our lives and our livelihoods.”
Today marked the first time since last March that APS students in kindergarten through second grade and in the special education program returned to their schools for in-person learning. Pendley labelled the occasion a “complete joke” as students and teachers had difficulty adjusting.
“Some students had not been in that building before, many of the kids are brand new,” Pendley said. “We had teachers trying to teach virtually while simultaneously introducing new children to routines in the classroom. There was a lot of interruption from instruction from the teacher saying things like, ‘Make sure your mask covers your nose.’”
Allison Glass, a parent and We Demand Safety APS organizer, believes the return to in-person learning for younger students was premature.
“Teachers are being forced back into classrooms before it is safe for them,” Glass said. “Just like families get a choice about whether to return or not, teachers should too, and they deserve to feel safe before going back to school.”
With the current reopening schedule, grades third through fifth will return Feb. 8 and grades sixth through 12th will return Feb. 16. Until Jan. 22, the district’s “return-to-learn” dates were Feb. 1 and Feb. 4. Glass sees APS Superintendent Dr. Lisa Herring’s decision to delay reopening for the older grades as a positive.
“It is a step in the right direction, but it is only one step,” Glass said.
Glass also is encouraged by her recent interactions with Dr. Herring as a leader of the We Demand Safety organization.
“We have met with Dr. Herring. and we were really encouraged that, in her last communication to families, she [said] she is going to be working with We Demand Safety leadership.” Glass said. “We look forward to having those regular conversations so that we can work together to try to mitigate the risk as much as possible.”
Despite Glass’s optimism, many teachers at the rally had one specific demand that does not fall under the control of the superintendent.
“We have said repeatedly that we want vaccinations ahead of returning to the school building,” Pendley said. “We will be ready when vaccinations are offered to all educators in this city, and we are not ready yet.”