Fulton County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney spoke with the Reporter at the start of the second week of classes to discuss the challenges of reopening schools while safeguarding students and teachers in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The district was on track to resume in-person classes Sept. 8.

Fulton Schools Superintendent Mike Looney (Special)

What has been the biggest challenge in getting the school system prepared for the 2020-2021 school year?

Quite honestly, just the personal interactions that we have in a typical school year with families and students, between teachers and families. Our district develops relationships, one of the examples of the work we do, building positive reactions. It’s just more complicated when you have to do it digitally.

Complaints have been made about the remote learning experience, with access to virtual classes, homework and more limited or just not working. What has staff done to correct these issues? Should we expect these kinds of problems with universal remote learning?

What we do know is that it’s not an issue of bandwidth. It could be a home router, could be how much connectivity family has at home, could be some other variable. But it’s certainly not the district bandwidth.

Some school systems have received a lot of pushback from teachers and teachers’ unions to keep from bringing everyone back to the classroom. What has been your experience here in Fulton County?

Our teachers have expressed a desire to continue working with students. Obviously, we have a segment of our teachers that are concerned… And it’s just an expression of their uneasiness because of the COVID virus. It’s not because they don’t want to work. And our teachers have been back in buildings for two weeks, learning to work social distancing, wearing masks. We are doing that in advance of students beginning to return on Sept. 8, in a very deliberate and slow process so we don’t all of a sudden bring thousands of students in… only to have to close again. We think it’s a practical approach, measuring our practices on the way.

What is the school district doing for teachers who have underlying health issues that health safety guidelines say are reasons for avoiding other people and non-essential travel?

Two things that Fulton specifically has done: One is we have provided an additional leave type for up to 15 days if a teacher self-quarantines or has other legitimate reason not to report to the workplace. They’re still teaching from home if possible. What we’re doing in Fulton is not provided in other school districts. In addition, we have set up a process by which teachers can make a report saying there is a legitimate reason they should not report to work.

Once students return to the classroom in the next reopening phases, what will it take to keep students in the classrooms and avoid a return to universal remote learning?

We have both now a reopening matrix, but we also have a closing matrix. We fully expect when school closings, we will have some schools requiring temporary closures, until COVID is no longer a threat to us. We can very well isolate small numbers of cases in the school here and there and not have to shut the entire district down. But I always want to be clear, there will likely be time a school will have to shut down for 24 or 72 hours so we have time to clean and do contact traces

What is the status and current plan for competitive sports in Fulton County Schools?

So at this point in time we have delayed competitions between other schools and schools districts until at least the 14th of September. That‘s so we can make sure we’ve down everything we can to mitigate exposure to other schools and districts. That, too, is predicated on the level of spread in the community at that time.

What is your biggest goal for this school year?

To have our students learn as much as possible and to support their social and emotional needs during these unusual times.

Will students in the last school year and this one be less well prepared than those in previous years because of the effects of the pandemic?

Well certainly I think from a global, regional and world perspective, yes. Digital learning, remote learning, does not offer the same opportunities for students to learn and to do so in a collaborative and supportive way. Yes, I do believe we will have ground to make up when we return to traditional schooling. Having said that, our goal is to make that learning gap as small as possible relative to their peers in other places. But I fully acknowledge that students in Fulton County and elsewhere will have some ground to make up relative to where they would have been if this had not happened.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I’ve also heard and seen from students… where the universal remote learning strategy has been very beneficial to them. Moving forward, we will have to provide more options and opportunities for students, based on their circumstance and needs. I think that virtual schooling will become another arm of the district’s offering.

We will be better. At the end of the day we are going to be better as a result of the pandemic. We’ve sharpened our skills, our tool kit. Increased our abilities in relation to how we incorporate and leverage and utilize technology. And it’s increased our focus on the social emotional learning needs of our students.

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.