DeKalb County School District Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris hopes to restore the district’s former “stellar reputation” under her leadership, she told Dunwoody Mayor Lynn Deutsch during a virtual back-to-school conversation on Aug. 13. But in her first two months in her new role, she said gearing up students and staff to start classes again during the COVID-19 pandemic has been her first priority.

“Based on what I was reading in terms of what the community wanted in their superintendent, it very much aligned to what I believed to be my strengths,” Watson-Harris said. “I very much wanted to come to be a part of the future of the DeKalb County School District.”

Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris. (Special)

Watson-Harris, who previously served as second in command at the New York City Department of Education, started in DCSD on July 1. Her first few weeks have been hyper-focused on preparations for virtual learning and the return to school, Watson-Harris said.

As soon as she was hired, she started helping with the COVID-19 reopening plan, which included pushing the start date for classes back two weeks to Aug. 17 and detailing when DCSD could return to in-person classes based on the data of COVID-19 infections in the county.

In addition to preparing and maintaining a smooth virtual learning environment for students, Watson-Harris said, staff members are continuing to ready the schools to transition back into in-person classes whenever that becomes an option. DCSD is working with the DeKalb County Board of Health to analyze the COVID-19 data.

Watson-Harris and her team will assess whether schools can reopen at a September DeKalb County Board of Education meeting.

Her experience in New York while it was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic helped her prepare to lead DCSD, Watson-Harris said.

“What that experience really did teach me was the value of human life,” Watson-Harris said. “There was a point in those last couple months where we started almost every staff meeting with a moment of silence. When I see where the trends are going here, I don’t want that to be a reality in DeKalb.”

As for advice to parents helping their students with virtual learning, she suggested making sure they maintain a schedule and continue to treat virtual learning as school.

“We want our scholars to know that even if we’re in the virtual space this is still school and we have high expectations,” Watson-Harris said. “We’re going to support them every step of the way and be flexible, but we’re also going to hold them accountable for what they have to learn because we need them to learn.”

Watson-Harris said she always wants there to be “two-way communication” between the district and students and families. She has created a weekly superintendent newsletter, and she’ll also be monitoring student engagement data each week to try to make sure students in all areas of the district are participating.

Though most of her attention was focused on getting the schools and teachers ready for the school year, she said she’s also been working to fill some high-level vacancies in the district leadership as one of her other top priorities.

Watson-Harris said she wanted to work in DCSD because of its size and diversity. She said she has family in the area and has always enjoyed the area.