The DeKalb County School District is changing its formula for when to return to in-person classes, making it probably sooner than the metric they were using before, Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris announced Dec. 14 at a town hall meeting. That could mean a return sometime in January.

“There’s no blueprint for this,” Watson-Harris said. “But we’re at a point now where we’re considering returning in January.”

DCSD has a detailed plan for the return, which she shared with the public during the virtual meeting.

Previously, DCSD officials said they wouldn’t return to face-to-face learning until the countywide COVID-19 diagnoses dropped below 100 cases per 100,000 people for 14 straight days.

Now, Watson-Harris said, the district is planning to allow students to return to school when there is a 10% positivity rate for two weeks. Students would still have the option of doing school virtually.

When a survey was done of parents, only 40% wanted their children to come back to school in-person, she said.

“Our decisions will not please everyone,” Watson-Harris said at the town hall meeting.

Questions from the public during the meeting ranged from what happens if kids don’t wear masks to whether the schools are going to hire more nurses or medical staff. The answers were that kids would be provided masks and made to wear them. And medical staff is being hired for all schools who don’t already have them.

Some parents have been vocal in wanting their children back in school, saying the district’s metrics were unreasonable.The Georgia Department of Education reported last month that less than 7% of Georgia’s school districts have no face-to-face learning.

Parents aren’t the only ones that have been frustrated. “Every school system around us is back,” said Dunwoody City Councilmember Jim Riticher at a Dec. 14 council meeting.

The DeKalb district is following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s standards now, school officials said.

The plan would be a phase-in process, administrators said.

At a 10% positivity rate, teachers would return to schools to teach remotely from there. When the positivity rate is between 8% and 10%, students in Pre-K; kindergarten through second grade; and sixth and ninth grades would be offered the option of returning to school in person.

Those grades were picked because the younger students learn better with structure at school. The older students may be starting at a new school and need time to adjust to that and new special safety protocols, said Stacy Stepne, DCSD’s chief academic officer.

When the positivity rate gets between 5% and 8%, all students could return to the classroom if their parents want them to.

The CDC says schools should focus on mitigation, and that’s the plan, Watson-Harris said. Masks, social distancing, hand-washing, cleaning, disinfecting and contact tracing would all be elements in place. Schools have hand-sanitizer stations. Ventilation has been increased at schools.

And just because students return doesn’t mean a school won’t close or a students have to quarantine if positive cases start to escalate.

DeKalb has learned from neighboring school districts who are already back in school what to do and not to do, Watson-Harris said.

Holly R. Price

Holly R. Price is a freelance writer based in metro Atlanta.