DeKalb County School District officials still have no date for returning to face-to-face classes, but reviewed the five-phase plan for deciding the question in a Nov. 5 virtual town hall.

Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris joined cabinet administrators and regional superintendents in answering questions from parents and guardians about the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris. (Special)

“We all have to be flexible and patient during this time,” Watson-Harris said during her opening remarks. “I think what we’ve seen is that we have very polarizing views throughout our system on whether we should be going back, whether we should be staying virtual. But we’re really trying to make sure that we’re all being flexible and patient, recognizing that we’re in unprecedented times. There’s no blueprint for this, and what’s good for one system may not be good for DeKalb.”

During the virtual session, parents questioned DCSD leaders about technical glitches during remote learning, support services for students struggling with mental health or disabilities, and how mask mandates will be enforced when students and teachers do return.

But the burning question from many was why the district has yet to make face-to-face learning an option.

“Are the teachers and board members using the virus as an excuse to make the same income while doing less work?” asked one parent who said he was struggling to keep pace with his children’s schoolwork while running a small business.

District officials have used an “intent to return” survey to gauge the pulse of the community by polling parents on whether they prefer remote learning or the traditional classroom model.

By Nov. 5, more than 50,000 parents had weighed in and 56.75% opted for the virtual model, district officials said.

Stacy Stepney, DeKalb’s chief academic officer, said the district has again extended the timeframe for parents to vote, pushing the deadline back to Nov. 12.

DCSD announced its reopening plan Sept. 14. DeKalb is operating on a five-phased approach that strives to incrementally transition teachers and students back into the classroom. It’s a data model based on COVID-19’s spread in the community.

According to the plan, parents would not have the option for face-to-face learning five days a week until DeKalb has less that 10 new cases per 100,000 residents for a 14-day span.

The school district plans to use remote learning and hybrid models for students and teachers until then. The district won’t move into its second phase until the spread slows to under 100 cases per 100,000 for 14 consecutive days.

That could be some time. DeKalb County, which has a population of about 760,000 residents according to U.S. Census data, saw its coronavirus diagnoses increase by roughly 2,938 in October.

A COVID-19 reopening task force monitors the virus number every day and sends district officials an alert at 3 p.m.

On Oct. 19, the last time the school board met to update the district’s reopening, the rate was at 122 cases per 100,000. Stepney said it rose to 201 cases per 100,000 residents in the 14 days following the meeting.

The school board will meet Monday, Nov. 9 to reassess its plan for the future.

Stepney told parents that when classrooms do reopen, teachers will use a blend of hybrid and remote learning.

“We are doing active research. It is now referred to as the ‘concurrent classroom,’” she said. “What that means is that a teacher will be simultaneously teaching the hybrid group as well as those that opt to continue with distance remote learning as the permanent way of learning for them.”

DeKalb students have been learning remotely since the school year began Aug. 17.

Gwinnett County allowed students from all grades to return to classrooms beginning Sept. 9.

Fulton County schools, meanwhile, returned to the full-time in-person learning on Oct. 14. But within five days, the district had to temporarily close two schools after staff or students tested positive. Since then, Fulton has had three more school closures due to COVID-19.

DeKalb’s operations team has been working since mid-summer to prepare schools for eventual return of students, adjusting the air conditioning units and HVAC systems in all schools to increase ventilation levels and fresh air. They’ve also installed plastic partitions in front office work spaces where administrators interact with the public.

Class sizes in most classrooms will be limited between 12 and 16 students and the school district plans to reduce the number of kids on school buses through hybrid scheduling.

Melanie Pearch, regional superintendent of the district’s Dunwoody and Brookhaven schools, said principals are working closely with administrators to keep schools safe. She said they operate off a checklist that cover everything from bathroom breaks to lunch schedules.

Pearch participated in a Nov. 4 exercise where several district leaders visited three schools, going through “a day in the life” of a student. They gauged all aspects of daily student life and made recommendations for safety measures.

“That was super helpful to bring back to the COVID think tank, which is a group that meets at least about two or three times a week to cover and just dig deeper into every detail of what we are missing,” Pearch said.

Watson-Harris said she hoped the Nov. 5 town hall was the first in a series of meetings with parents and guardians.

“Overcommunication is definitely one of our major, major priorities,” the superintendent said. “And tonight’s town hall is yet another example of our intention to over communicate our plans, and the decision making process leading up to that.”

Matt Bruce is a writer based in metro Atlanta.