Atlanta Public Schools will have an in-person graduation ceremony for the Class of 2021, Superintendent Lisa Herring told a North Atlanta Cluster parents group in one of the few solid decisions about the immediate future of pandemic-era education.

“We will have a face-to-face graduation for the Class of 2021. … There is a team executing that,” Herring said in a Feb. 17 virtual meeting of North Atlanta Parents for Public Schools, adding ceremonies will be held in a yet-to-be determined “venue that allows us to safely come together.” Last year’s ceremonies became a combination of virtual and long-delayed outdoor events.

Herring spoke the day after APS completed the final stage of a phased-in return of optional face-to-face classes, with roughly 35% of the student population choosing to do so. On Feb. 17, APS launched a new round of “intent-to-return” declaration forms where families again choose a virtual or in-person option for the final nine-week quarter of the school year. The declaration period runs through March 8. For the form and more information, see the APS website.

Herring told NAPPS that the intent-to-return results also will inform APS’s thinking about some of the short- and long-term decisions on if and how to operate virtually. The ideal goal, she said, remains a full return to in-person learning.

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Herring speaks to North Atlanta Parents for Public Schools in a Feb. 17 virtual meeting.

Virtual options for fall

Asked about virtual options in the works for the start of the 2021-2022 school year, Herring said that the Atlanta Virtual Academy online school, which predates the pandemic, is the one certainty. Up in the air are such practices as so-called simultaneous teaching, where teachers perform the “Herculean task” of instructing students virtually and online at the same time. “I hope not,” Herring said of the continuation of simultaneous teaching, adding that conversations with principals and others have yet to happen. 

“I am very much a supporter of ‘anytime, anywhere’ learning,” said Herring. “But the truth is, there are other opportunities [for how to conduct it]… We have not had time to pause and take a deep dive into that conversation, but we’re about to.”

Also undecided is the future of “asynchronous Wednesdays,” a day set aside for students to work on their own, typically by digital methods. Herring said the day is important right now so that teachers get time off from the stress of simultaneous teaching, the district gets time to respond to pandemic-related issues like testing, and students can get specialized support. But that emergency tactic is not intended to last forever. 

“I would dare not tie us to saying we are having asynchronous Wednesday for fall,” Herring said. The final round of intent-to-return declarations will influence that decision, she said.

Summer school ideas

The biggest short-term decision is what to do with summer school, which APS is considering making mandatory for three years as a way to mitigate the lost learning from pandemic shutdowns and virtual schooling. Herring emphasized that no decisions have been made about mandatory summer school — “I just want to control that narrative,” she said — but also offered more details about the current state of brainstorming. 

She said the summer school program would now include “intervention for reading and math as a priority”; social and psychological support; and “some fun,” which could mean arts, technology or sports-type activities. 

Summer school could be attended either in-person or virtually, Herring said. When a NAPSS parent asked why virtual summer school would be expected to remediate lost learning from virtual normal school, Herring said APS had the same concern. Thus, some face-to-face attendance might be required in summer school “because we believe it is necessary,” she said.

Universal screener testing and other updates

An urgent need for the district, Herring said, is a “universal screener” — a test that every student will take to determine the baseline level of their educational status so that any pandemic-related losses can be addressed. Herring said APS has issued a request for proposals for companies to provide a universal screener, but its timeline remains unclear. APS would like to have the testing in place by the start of summer school, Herring said, but might have to wait until the beginning of the next school year in August. 

In other pandemic updates, Herring said APS expects to provide more information on reopening district fields by early March, and continues a political push to get teachers added to the first round of COVID-19 vaccine recipients. APS has identified a large facility to conduct the vaccinations, she said.

School budget impacts and equity

NAPPS parents were especially concerned with the pandemic’s impacts on school budgets and how to pay for remedial education. “This is a really important question across the board,” said NAPPS representative Caren Solomon Bharwani, saying North Atlanta Cluster schools have relatively significant enrollment declines and many schools that do not receive federal Title I funding designated for low-income student populations. She noted that APS has a new equity policy and wanted to make sure the district’s distribution of funding lives up to the equitable ideals.

APS agrees with that equity standard of funding, said Herring and Tauheedah Baker-Jones, head of APS’s new Center for Equity and Social Justice. Baker-Jones said a new round of funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act will specifically pay for remedial programs for lost learning. That money, Baker-Jones said, will be “funding all schools, regardless of enrollment,” and will be “on top of and in addition to” their regular school budgets.

The Center for Equity and Social Justice will play a role in distributing that relief money, the official said, but otherwise is still in the early stage of developing its mission and programs. However, Baker-Jones said, parents and students can get an early start on by discussing its mission of dismantling systemic racism through “difficult conversations” about “unpleasant truths.” She suggested thinking of schools and clusters with the metaphor of personal “relationships” between people who are “unpacking childhood issues.” She said that “just like any other relationship in your life, it takes work,” as well as introspection, grace and a tolerance for making mistakes.

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John Ruch

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