Members of the Fulton County Schools Board of Education disagreed on what input the board needs to have on district-wide school closings during its work session on Jan. 11.

The school district began its second semester virtually for students for the first four days before resuming in-person classes on Jan. 10, with masks required until Jan. 21. Those changes came after an initial plan to continue in-person classes in the first week.

Students are required to wear masks at Fulton County Schools through Jan. 21. (FCS)

Superintendent of Schools Mike Looney told the board that the Fulton County Board of Health’s communication on Dec. 30 caused the change in plans. The message said, in part, “We are at the crisis stage and will only get worse over the next week or so. If you want to keep Fulton public schools functioning, you’re going to have to take stringent measures.”

The message compelled him to change the second semester plans to begin with four days of remote learning and then a return to in-person classes with masks required for the first 10 days, Looney said.

“I want to assure the public our intent is to make masks optional again after Jan. 21, which is a Friday, and go back to the masks being optional – with the exception of if under the quarantine guidance that we received from the administrative order from the Georgia Department of Public Health,” he said.

Board member Katie Reeves said members of the community have asked if the superintendent’s emergency powers have ended, whether the board should have closing authority. 

Board President Julia Bernath said that while the board wants to be engaged and involved, it shouldn’t impede the district’s operations. The district shouldn’t wait for the board’s next meeting to close classrooms or schools or require the board to hold an emergency meeting.

Reeves said they’ve learned that virtual instruction doesn’t work for all students and closing all schools is a drastic measure.

“And it seems to me that before we were to take a drastic measure, again, that board input of some kind should be part of that. … I think that’s what the community expects,” Reeves said.

Several board members said making decisions on individual classes isn’t in the best interests of the schools or students.

“I trust that you’re going to make the decision on what’s in the best interest for the kids,” board member Francesca Warren said. “This is a highly political environment.”

The issue isn’t individual classrooms. The issue is the entire district being treated the same when they know it’s diverse and that one fits all doesn’t work, board member Linda McCain said.

“This last week when we decided to go virtual for four days, it caused a lot of angst for parents probably because, once again, they felt they didn’t have enough time to prepare,” she said.

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Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.