DeKalb tries to ease fears as school buildings reopen

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DeKalb County School District superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris poses for a photo after her installment ceremony. (FILE PHOTO)

By Wilborn P. Nobles III

The DeKalb County School District is trying ease back-to-school fears among parents and employees amid rising COVID-19 infections in Georgia.

Buildings were opened to teachers and staff Monday for the first time since March, when they were shut down due to the pandemic. Students in grades Pre-K, 1st, 2nd, 6th, and 9th grade who opted for in-person learning will begin returning to buildings on Jan. 19, according to the district’s plan.

“Many of you are returning to schools and offices for the first time since March and I know the adjustment to returning to the building may be difficult for some,” Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris in a YouTube message released this week.

“We recognize there are staff members with underlining health concerns, some who are caring for a family member or staff members who have child care challenges,” she said. “Our goal, again, is to be flexible, patient and compassionate.”

Watson-Harris said last month that 40% of DeKalb’s families indicated in a survey that they want face-to-face learning. But many students will continue with online-only learning.

The Georgia Department of Health reported Monday that DeKalb has had 602 cases per 100,000 people and a 13.2% positivity rate over the last 14 days.

Those metrics exceed the district’s reopening threshold. The school district initially required no more than 100 cases per 100,000 residents. Its latest guidance is to wait until the positivity rate reaches 10% over two weeks.

The district is working to finalize and approve requests from employees who want to continue working from home for health or other reasons, Watson-Harris said.

DeKalb school board member Diijon DaCosta told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he doesn’t think in-person learning should occur amid high levels of community spread. He said residents in his district are worried about the safety of some buildings.

“Many are inquiring about our protocol and how are we addressing the constant intellectual, creative, and social-emotional challenges,” he said.

DeKalb parent Lisa Baker told the AJC that schools should remain closed until vaccines are widely available. Baker also said district employees should not be pressured to return to school if face-to-face learning is offered.

“If they press forward with this unrealistic plan, the chaos will only get worse as teachers and students get sick and have to quarantine,” Baker said.

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