The DeKalb County School District will delay its start date by two weeks and use remote learning until the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic slows, according to reopening guidelines presented July 13 by Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris and the COVID-19 Reopening Task Force.

Remote learning will start Aug. 17 instead of the original start date of Aug. 3. The DeKalb Board of Education approved the delayed start date in the July 13 meeting, according to a DCSD press release. To review the reopening guidelines, see the DCSD website here.

The board will re-evaluate the COVID-19 safety risk of students and staff returning to school at each monthly board meeting and update families on whether the schools will continue remote learning or move to a traditional or hybrid learning model. The next board meeting is scheduled for Sept. 14.

“Given the substantial spread in our area right now, this option is our best choice, but it will be re-evaluated on a regular basis,” Watson-Harris said in the press release.

The district’s year-round staff members were scheduled to return on July 14 in a hybrid model of remote and in-person work with staggered schedules, according to the guidelines.

If the community spread of COVID-19 drops to low or none, the school district will restart traditional, in-person learning, according to the press release. If there is minimal or moderate spread, the district may use traditional, remote or hybrid learning.

“The whole thing has got to be worked out,” said school board member Joyce Morley during the discussion about students returning to the buildings. “That’s why this cannot be rushed. It cannot be political. It has to be for the health and safety of all children, all staff and all people of the district.”

A community input survey conducted by DCSD showed that 70% of employees and 59% of parents were uncomfortable with having a traditional school model, though 56% of students said they were comfortable with it. Students were least comfortable with the remote learning option, but employees were most comfortable with this option, according to the survey results, which are available here.

The board meeting where the guidelines were presented was conducted virtually and had some technical difficulties for live viewers because of buffering problems.

Remote learning

Board member Vickie Turner said starting the school year with remote learning gives the district staff more time to prepare for the COVID-19 safety precautions that will be in place when students return to schools.

To support remote learning, the district will be providing personal Chromebook computers to all elementary school students, which they did not previously have. The district also will replace devices for sixth- to 12th-grade students as needed so all students have a Chromebook to use at home. The distribution of those devices and other internet-supporting hardware will be staggered to promote social distancing.

Watson-Harris said the devices will arrive around Aug. 25, so the first week of school will be for readjusting students to remote learning.

According to the reopening guidelines, the district will conduct training for teachers and students for the software the district will use during virtual learning, such as Microsoft Teams for video lessons.

Teachers will have more modules and training on social and emotional help for children, such as mental health and implicit biases, according to the guidelines. Counselors and support staff will also be able to check in with students virtually and hold classroom guidance sessions.

Meal distribution via bus routes or curbside pickup will continue during remote learning.

Watson-Harris said the district plans to continue to pay all employees, though some staff members have different roles during remote learning.

Back to brick-and-mortar

When students do return to the buildings, all teachers and staff will be required to wear masks, which will be provided if they don’t have one, according to the presentation. Bus drivers will also wear masks, and the district is still researching how to social distance during bus rides.

Board members discussed specific questions about how the schools will enact and enforce COVID-19 safety guidelines, such as student use of water fountains, temperature checks before the school day, and sanitizing buildings.

The presentation of the guidelines did not answer all their questions, but staff said they will continue to work out the details as students and teachers do remote working.

School maintenance will work in staggered shifts and put plastic dividers at receptionist counters and media center checkouts. Hand sanitizer will be placed at different locations around the school.

DCSD Chief Operations Officer Noel Maloof said the district is bolstering supply chains for cleaning and disinfecting materials and will provide technical assistance for school sanitation.

Morley wanted to make sure that the district continues to monitor COVID-19 deaths and cases in the school district specifically, and also county-wide, to close down areas and sanitize more completely as needed.

Deputy Superintendent Vasanne Tinsley said the district is still closely monitoring COVID-19 data to make a decision about what fall sports may look like when students return.