Despite a surge in COVID-19 cases, hospital bed shortages, controversy over the vaccine rollout, and concerns from parents and teachers, Atlanta Public Schools plans to restart in-person education on Jan. 25.

Around 13,000 of the district’s 52,000 students are expected to return to schoolhouses at the end of the month, according to school officials, as in-person learning would be optional, with virtual learning still available. It will be the first time students have been in classrooms since last March.

Pre-K, grades 1 and 2, and special education students across all grade levels will be back at their desks on Jan. 25. Grades 3 through 12 will have a staggered return to the classroom from Feb. 1 to 4.

Teachers, many who have expressed concern about their safety, will be expected back in the classroom, with most dealing with simultaneous learning — teaching students in the classroom and virtually at the same time. Teachers will report Jan. 19 and will be teaching virtually from their classrooms until in-person learning resumes.

Even if face-to-face learning resumes, students will still have Wednesdays off as “independent learning days” and to allow for deep cleaning at facilities, meal delivery and COVID-19 testing.

Jason Esteves, chairman of the Atlanta Board of Education, said during a Jan. 11 meeting another postponement of in-person learning could harm vulnerable students. “There are students who have to be in our school buildings to learn,” he said.

Some public school systems in neighboring communities have taken different approaches to in-person returns. The Fulton County School System has been offering in-person classes since last fall, but switched to all-remote this month due to the surge and delayed the resumption of face-to-face classes until Jan 19. The DeKalb County School District, like APS, has remained all-virtual, and the surge led DCSD to indefinitely delay an in-person return, backing off from a tentative Jan. 19 date.

In Atlanta, the in-person return schedule has been controversial, with organized groups of parents, teachers and staff advocating for various strategies. A group called We Demand Safety APS has advocated for better safeguards before an in-person return. Another called Committee for APS Progress has advocated for an immediate in-person option.

We Demand Safety APS issued a statement on Jan. 12 calling on the district to wait to reopen schools until teachers could be vaccinated. Teachers are in the Phase 1B rollout of the vaccine, which isn’t expected to begin until spring.

For more about the APS decision, see coverage in Atlanta Intown.

–John Ruch contributed

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.