The Atlanta Public Schools return to in-person classes has been delayed until January.

The decision, announced Oct. 16 by Superintendent Lisa Herring, came after more than 3,800 concerned parents, teachers and staff members signed a letter under the name “We Demand Safety APS.”

“I have decided that Atlanta Public Schools … will postpone all reopening plans for in-person learning until January 2021,” Herring said in a post on her blog that detailed the new plan. “This decision comes after our continued monitoring and tracking of COVID-19 health data that is trending unfavorably, consultation with public health officials and healthcare experts, and data secured to determine both feasibility and stakeholder feedback.”

A previous plan announced earlier this month had students returning in phases from Oct. 26 through Nov. 16.

Among the feedback that Herring cited as influencing the change in the return plan was intent-to-return statements that APS solicited from parents and students. Buckhead’s North Atlanta cluster had the highest rate of an intent to return, Herring said, adding that the rate varied widely across the district. The forms came only from traditional APS schools — not charter schools — and had a return rate of 58%, she said.

“As a cluster, North Atlanta had the highest percent of students declare [an intent to return] in-person with 42%, compared to the Mays cluster [in West Atlanta], with only 19%,” Herring wrote. She said the three schools with more than 60% of students declaring an intent to return were all in the North Atlanta cluster: Brandon, Jackson and Sarah Smith elementary schools.

The original plan to start returning this month came after pressure from another parents’ group that goes by “Let Atlanta Parents Choose” on Facebook. Another group seems to have an had impact on the decision to delay the return.

The new We Demand Safety APS group is grassroots and unfunded, said Robin Deutsch Edwards, a parent involved in circulating its letter. The letter was formally submitted to APS on Oct. 16 after circulating for more than a week.

“Everyone in the APS community wants to return to face-to-face learning; however, it is essential that it be done in a way that prioritizes safety,” the group said in the letter.

The letter has five demands, including a rapid-testing and contract-tracing system; the creation of a task force about how to return to school in January; a commitment to provide proper personal protective equipment to teachers, staff and students; working with government officials for better testing and tracing in general; and to “leverage private-sector partnerships to provide greater support for students that need more direct engagement from educators during the school day.”

Among those signing the letter was Christie Lowell, who teaches biology and physics at Grady High School, where she also helps to coach the cross country team. She said she had concerns with both safety and the quality of instruction if teachers attempted hybrid learning with few students back in classrooms. A January return may work, she said in a phone interview, but added that APS needs to put “a lot more thought” into protective equipment and possibly letting teachers choose whether to return to the classroom or stay virtual.

“I’m not a high-risk person, but I don’t think it’s just about yourself,” Lowell said. “And I think it’s our responsibility to protect people that are vulnerable in the community.”

For some teachers, she said, the idea of a return to the classroom is “pretty terrifying… You shouldn’t have to choose between keeping your job and staying safe and protecting others.”

The APS decision comes as some neighboring school districts, including those in DeKalb and Fulton counties, have already made returns to a form of in-person instruction amid some concerns from teachers and parents. Asked about the possibility of the “We Demand Safety” group expanding to those districts, Lowell said, “I hope so.” She said she knows two teachers in the Fulton County School System who “think it has not been handled well in terms of returning to the school buildings.”

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.