Stone Mountain, GA – DeKalb County teachers braved the cold, windy weather on Monday, Feb. 1, to protest at the DeKalb County School District offices in Stone Mountain.
Teachers gathered at the entrance way to advocate for a safe return to school. The people who attended the protest believe now is not a safe time to return.
“I’m terrified,” said Miss C, a DeKalb County teacher who teaches first and second grade reading. “So my point out here is, I love teaching, but I want to live. It shouldn’t be a matter of my job and my life. It’s not someone’s choice.”
Some teachers chose not to share their full names or wished to remain anonymous.
The teachers, and the Organization of DeKalb Educators, are protesting plans for teachers to return to school buildings on Wednesday, Feb. 3. It is unknown at this time when students will return in person. Schools have been virtual since March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Tucker Observer previously reported.
“They’re trying to have us do something they have no control over,” Miss C said. “The children aren’t responsible enough to provide the safety measures that we need and we’re the only ones that are going to be responsible for all of those children. It’s unfair and it’s unsafe and it’s a threat to our lives.”
Teachers were concerned about safety measures, class sizes and the number of cases reported in the district.
According to Audrey Qualls, open records specialist for DeKalb County School District, 541 staff members and 144 students have tested positive for COVID-19 between July 1, 2020, and January 28, 2021.
The district also told Tucker Observer that a staff member recently died. While the district did not relay the cause, Tucker Observer asked about reports that an employee had died from COVID-19.
In response to that question, the school district said, “The DeKalb County School District sends its condolences to the family of Mr. Washington Varnum, Jr., as well as to the Henderson Middle School family. Mr. Varnum was a campus supervisor and worked at Henderson Middle School for three years. Please keep his family in your thoughts and prayers.”
Additionally, Tracey Anderson, a high school English teacher, said the district’s public safety office had been closed due to positive cases and Miss C said she received a phone call recently about this from someone doing contact tracing.
An email sent to an employee about this subject was obtained by Tucker Observer and reads as follows, “Due to a positive COVID-19 case at the Department of Public Safety, your appointment has been canceled. The office will be closed Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, through Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. Please reschedule your appointment.”
Teachers have concerns about the actions the district has taken toward a safe return, most notably with the ventilation system.
“We have no preventative measures other than what’s already in place and that’s not preventing COVID,” Miss C said. “That’s not preventing so if we contract it we’re going to be replaced. We can die and then we’ll be replaced and then life goes on.”
Mr. de Vastey, a high school world language teacher, said there is a difference in the HVAC systems in the county compared to other schools that have received updates to the system.
“With us, what we know is that they changed the filters. They just bought new filters, like the old ones, and we placed them,” he said. “They didn’t add one bit of safety to those filters.”
A 10th grade AP world history teacher said that windows cannot be opened in some classrooms at his school, and Miss C said the same.
The history teacher also shared concerns about being able to keep students six feet a part while in classrooms and in hallways, especially in high schools where students change classes throughout the day. He has 20 to 31 students in his classes.
“Even if it’s half of that, if they do cohorts, 15 kids in a classroom, it’s still going to be hard to keep them spaced adequately,” he said.
The number of students in a classroom will depend on if parents opt for in-person or virtual learning.
“It’s up to a parent to decide my life, not me. It’s up to them and everybody else to decide if I’m going to live or die,” Miss C said.
Terri Gordon, an elementary special education teacher, will not have any students returning to her classroom as the parents don’t feel comfortable sending their children back in-person because they have underlying health concerns.
“I’m not going to [return] and so many people are not,” Gordon said, adding that many teachers plan to take a sick day on Wednesday. “I’m prepared to extend that. I have about a year’s worth of sick time and if I have to extend it beyond that, I will.”
According to teachers at the protest, staff and students are not required to get tested before returning in person and some schools aren’t doing temperature checks. Additionally, teachers are not currently eligible for the vaccines unless they are 65 or olde or a caregiver to someone who is 65 or older, according to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.
Miss C and others also said they will be responsible for cleaning their classrooms.
Overall, the teachers hope the district rethinks bringing them and students back in person, allows people to teach from home, and considers the safety of the teachers.
“It’s just an unfair situation,” Miss C said. “It’s okay that they’re doing online learning. We’re doing the best that we can in the situation that we’re in. If they miss out on a skill or get a little behind, what is worth it, someone’s life or someone getting a little bit behind in academics? It’s not fair to us.”
“I think I’d rather be alive than have a job,” Gordon added.
Here are additional photos from the Feb. 1 protest:
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