Atlanta Public Schools’ decision to delay a return to face-to-face instruction until sometime in January is dividing parents, especially in Buckhead, which has become a hotbed of back-to-the-classroom advocacy.

Disagreements in interpretations of pandemic science and APS’s equity policy are pushing parents, teachers and staff into separate camps with Facebook groups. A group going by “Let Atlanta Parents Choose” appears to have been influential in Superintendent Lisa Herring’s early decision to start a face-to-face return in late October; another group called “We Demand Safety APS” appears to have helped pressure her switch to the delay. The pro-return forces are regrouping under the name Committee for APS Progress, intended to be a formal nonprofit organization.

Laura Roxburgh LaHiff is a Buckhead mother with an eighth-grader at Sutton Middle and twin fourth-graders at Morris Brandon Elementary. She’s with the We Demand Safety APS group and welcomed the delay as a matter of health equity.

“We are inconvenienced. We are not endangered,” she said of the virtual learning, adding that many others in the district without Buckhead’s privileges and options might not fare so well. “We’re all facing this situation together so we also have to keep an eye out for our friends, our neighbors… people that we don’t know with a view of kindness and compassion.”

Shannon Schlottmann, whose son is a kindergartner at Morris Brandon, is in the Committee for APS Progress camp. She says virtual learning isn’t as good as in-person and is unfair to the students.

“Even with truly fantastic teachers, it’s been difficult,” she said. “One area in which my son struggles is handwriting, and it’s not something that can be taught effectively in a remote situation. APS students are not receiving the same amount of instruction they would be if they were in school in person.”

Buckhead resident David Hayes is chairman of the new Committee for APS Progress group, which he says is pushing for a return as soon as possible and aims to provide personal protective equipment to teachers and staff.

He provided a scathing written statement from the group that blasted Herring and the Atlanta Board of Education for “ignoring the data and science” with an “obviously political” decision to delay in-person classes.

“The negative effects of remote learning will be felt in our children’s development for years to come,” the statement says. “Every child has a right to an adequate education. Despite the heroic efforts of the teachers and staff of APS to date, remote learning is not adequate for all and sets many students up for failure.”

North Atlanta Parents for Public Schools, an organization representing the Buckhead-area North Atlanta cluster for over 40 years, appears to be threading the needle between the camps. In a written statement issued Oct. 26, NAPPS cited APS’s new equity policy and called for a “timeline for a safe return to face-to-face instruction” that would start with “students in the highest-risk groups” — but also without pushing for the return to happen immediately.

Asked whether NAPPS supports the January delay or has a particular timeline in mind, the group in an email said only, “NAPPS supports the district’s efforts to get kids in at-risk populations back in as soon as it’s safe.”

The decision to delay the return until January, announced by Herring Oct. 16, came amid similar turmoil in neighboring school districts. The Fulton County School System began a return Oct. 14, and within days had to shutter two high schools due to COVID-19 cases, but remains open. The school systems in DeKalb County and the city of Decatur postponed their reopenings, with Decatur making a similar delay until January.

Herring had previously announced a plan that would have had students returning in phases from Oct. 26 through Nov. 16. In a post on her blog that detailed the new plan, Herring said: “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.”

Among the feedback was a letter circulated by We Demand Safety APS that was signed by more than 3,800 parents, teachers and staff members.

Feedback that Herring cited as influencing the change in the return plan was intent-to-return statements that APS solicited from parents and students. The North Atlanta cluster had the highest rate of 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: Morris Brandon, Jackson and Sarah Smith elementary schools.

We Demand Safety APS is grassroots and unfunded, said Robin Deutsch Edwards, a parent involved in circulating its letter.

“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 had 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.”

For LaHiff, the parent with We Demand Safety APS, the delay is a chance to figure out a safe return that can unite parents she says are divided by such factors as different perception of safety and political views about the pandemic.

“There’s no winners and losers,” and descending into opposition is “going to end badly for all of us,” she said. “We’re all striving for the same goal, to get our kids back to school. We’re just disagreeing currently as to the ‘when.’”

For Schlottmann, the parent with the Committee for APS progress, there’s no time like the present. She said she and her husband work full-time and cannot carry out a quality education on their own.

“We’re planning to start supplementing with tutors,” she said, “and we’re looking at options outside of APS for next year.”

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