DeKalb superintendent outlines decision process for COVID-19-related school closures

DeKalb County School District Administration and Instructional Complex on Mtn. Industrial Blvd. in Stone Mountain. Photo by Dean Hesse

DeKalb County, GA — At the DeKalb Board of Education’s regular meeting on September 13, Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris described the framework that the district is using in order to decide when to close a classroom, school, cluster, region, and if necessary the district as a whole, based on the number of students and staff with positive COVID-19 tests or exposure.

Closures at the school level and above will only happen if schools are unable to function.

“There’s no one condition or data point that determines this school district’s operating status. Instead, we use a combination of multiple dynamic factors,” said Watson-Harris. Those factors include daily COVID-19 exposure and positive reports from staff and students, attendance rates, the ability of schools to implement mitigation strategies and ability to maintain appropriate staffing for essential functions.

Watson-Harris said that the decision to have Oakview Elementary go virtual was based on that framework.

“We questioned our ability to maintain the essential functions of the school based on the number of students and staff who had been exposed,” said Watson-Harris. “Our intention is to keep our children in school. Our intention is to maintain appropriate mitigation strategies as well as encourage the vaccine. But because the safety of our students and staff are our number one priority, we are prepared to have isolated closures where the numbers indicate that that is what’s in the best interests of the students.”

The only two public comments on the subject were against testing, closures, and vaccine mandates. A parent with two children in the district said, “I hope that we reduce the abundance of caution policies and return to some semblance of normal. The emergency is over.”

Another parent said that she believed in a conspiracy theory that masks and vaccines don’t work and that the pandemic is a depopulation experiment by Bill Gates and the CDC.

Meanwhile, the district is understaffed, especially for bus drivers. Watson-Harris stated that the district has 895 routes but only 769 bus drivers, leaving 107 vacancies. Bus drivers are working overtime, and a number of drivers did not show up for work last Friday. Watson-Harris stated that she had already met with some members of the Driver and Monitor Advisory Committee and would meet with their full board this upcoming week, along with the school district’s transportation managers. The district has also been seeking to hire new drivers and fill the existing vacancies.

In addition, the district will be launching use of the routing software Edulog on September 15, which will allow parents and guardians to know when buses will be arriving and when their children will be getting home.

Board Chair Vickie Turner expressed disapproval of drivers who may have staged a “sick out” on Friday.

“I’m very proud of our team who got in there and began to address the driver shortage immediately and kept us updated in real time. But I want to say this, at no point should children be put in the middle of an adult situation. Children are not part of the political process,” said Turner. “They were left vulnerable. They were left without rides and our parents had to scurry.”

Currently, the district has 214 teacher and staff vacancies. DeKalb has the third-highest percentage of teacher vacancies among metro Atlanta counties, which amounts to 1.8% of total teachers, after Fulton County with 1.9% and Clayton County with 8%.

Deborah Jones, who is president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, said during public comment that, “The issue isn’t pay. Teachers are leaving because of how they are being treated.”

In other news, Chief Financial Officer Charles Burbridge reported that his office has closed the books on fiscal year 2020, signalling an improvement in the district’s accounting process which has been plagued by delays in recent years.

The board declined to extend a $5,660,252 facilities maintenance contract with SSC Services Solutions, or a separate $300,000 contract with Vets Security America, Inc., Sakon Securities and B3 Security Group for security services.

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