DeKalb Schools superintendent defends decision to return teachers to buildings

Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris

DeKalb County, GA — The decision to bring DeKalb County School District’s teachers back to the buildings on Feb. 3 has sparked opposition from some parents and teachers, including the Organization of DeKalb Educators.

Citing collaboration with the district’s medical advisory board, and guidance released by the CDC, Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris defended the decision at the DCSD Board of Education meeting on Feb. 8.

“We have not changed course, we have not baited or switched with metrics. This has been a thoughtful, deliberate, and transparent process,” said Watson-Harris.

Watson-Harris also defended the district’s state of building readiness.

“We have delivered PPE, I have seen it myself.  We have prepared a two-month buffer of cleaning and sanitation supplies. Heat is activated in all buildings and the district does not have widespread outages,” she said.  She acknowledged that some buildings do have HVAC issues but stated that addressing them was “top priority.”

“We have continued to follow the guidance of the CDC,” the superintendent said.

During the public comment period, parents, teachers and students mostly spoke in opposition to any return to face-to-face learning.

Heather Shoemaker said that her son’s speech therapist quit rather than go back into the school building, and that she felt that it was better for a speech therapist to be virtual during a pandemic rather than attempt to teach while wearing a mask.

“We’ve lost multiple members of our family due to COVID and I don’t want my children to go through losing a teacher as well,” Shoemaker said.

Alexis Weaver said that she was concerned that masks would make it more difficult for her autistic daughter to pick up on social cues, and that both of her children would remain virtual. Weaver felt that the communication and approach from the district had changed suddenly.

“I was surprised and disappointed to see a one hundred and eighty degree shift in November,” Weaver said.

High school student Niana Battle said that there had been much discussion of the impact on Black students.

“As one of the Black kids, I would like to speak for us,” she said. Battle said that while attending school virtually she had completed four college courses as well as her regular high school classes.  She also spoke about the impact of serious illness on a family.

“My sister spent 68 days in the hospital due to a respiratory virus. I was scared. No other family should have to experience this,” Battle said.

Third grader Saisha Moreno-Hernandez said, “I think we should not go back to school. If one person gets COVID-19 and they don’t know it, the whole class is in danger of getting sick too. I wish we could all go back to school, but they are all my friends and I want everyone to be safe.”

Sherri Page asked for a moment of silence for all the teachers and other school employees throughout Georgia who have lost their lives due to COVID-19. Page said that she has expressed her concerns to School Board members and Superintendent Watson-Harris, who have responded that the district is following CDC guidelines. Page stated that the CDC guidelines cannot apply to antiquated schools where the HVAC and ventilation systems are out of date.

“I invite everyone to look up the facility condition assessments report that was performed in 2016. It’s definitely an eye-opener,” Page said.

Stephen Bowden said that virtual schooling was not working for his son who is in the third grade.

“I’ve seen him falling behind. I’ve seen his emotional state falling. It breaks my heart to see him crying over his assignments,” Bowden said. He said that he wants to see his son back in school and also wants the district to support teachers with whatever they need to teach safely.

Vice Chair Diijon DaCosta said that he did not believe teachers, staff, or students should return to the buildings, due to the new, more contagious strains of the COVID-19 virus present in Georgia and the fact that teachers are currently not prioritized for vaccination.

“There are classrooms that don’t have doors.  There are classrooms where teachers are sharing space. People are scared,” DaCosta said.

Board member Dr. Joyce Morley said that she felt the district was ignoring problems in order to rush a plan to return to face-to-face schooling.

“We’re always trying to cut corners and make a path through something that should take the long way around,” said Morley.  She said that some teachers were afraid to talk to the press because of fear of losing their jobs, and others were not receiving the ADA accommodations their doctors had recommended.

Morley also challenged the idea that the district could follow CDC recommendations adequately because of the condition of the buildings.

“If the district has twenty thousand requests for maintenance every year before the pandemic, what makes you think they’re going to be right during the pandemic?” asked Morley.

Board member Marshall Orson said that every decision including the decision to stay virtual carries risk.

“Except for one other district, we have been the most conservative in our approach.  The notion that we are being cavalier is unfair,” Orson said.

Board Chair Vickie Turner quoted a text from a teacher that stated that the internet in her school was glitchy and the school was cold.

“I don’t know that we’re ready,” Turner said, also citing the condition of some DCSD buildings.  She asked why teachers were not being allowed to teach from home.

“Parents are given the option and they can keep their kids safe.  But teachers aren’t given the option, as if their lives are not as valuable,” Turner said. “I understand the value of education and of social interaction for children. I get it. But something is wrong.”

When asked about the delay in responses to ADA applications from teachers, Dr. Michelle Jones, Interim Chief Human Resources Officer, said that the district has received 1,800 inquiries to the ADA mailbox and normally has one employee who handles those inquiries.  The district has received 575 complete applications for ADA accommodations.

Turner asked why teachers are not being allowed to work from home if their doctors recommend it.

Jones responded that face-to-face interaction with students was a requirement of the job of teaching and therefore it could not be eliminated, though it might be reduced.

“The law does not require teleworking as an accommodation. It could include a hybrid situation,” Jones said.

“The letter of the law kills. It kills spirits, it kills people sometimes. Give due consideration where it really is needed,” said Turner.

In recognition of the pressure that the pandemic has put on students, Stacy Stepney, Chief Academic Officer, presented a plan to modify graduation requirements.

“These are unprecedented times and we need to offer some flexibility to our graduating seniors,” Stepney said.  The district will require 23 instead of 24 Carnegie units for graduation, with more flexibility in electives and physical education.  In addition, high school math courses taken in 8th grade can be used to count towards the four years of high school math requirement. The change will apply to graduating seniors and will last until Aug. 31, 2021.

Stepney stated that DCSD requires more than the state and some neighboring school districts.

“This will allow our seniors to stay on track and graduate on time,” said Stepney.

Flexibility on school fees is also part of the proposal, because of the financial strain the pandemic has put on the district’s families. Turner asked the board to consider waiving some fees entirely.

DeKalb District 7 Commissioner Lorraine Cochran Johnson appropriated $198,571.42 in DeKalb County CARES funding to donate to DeKalb County School District to be used for COVID-19 testing, PPE, equipment, technology and hot spots, as well as administrative and other costs associated with the pandemic.

In July 2020 the Board authorized the formation of a nonprofit foundation, which will allow the district to receive grants and philanthropic contributions it is not currently eligible for.

A vote on the bylaws will be held at an upcoming School Board meeting, and if they are approved the foundation will be up and running by May or June of 2021.

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