The public school systems in Atlanta and DeKalb County are tentatively set to return to optional in-person classes in January, depending on the state of the COVID-19 pandemic, after months of advocacy by parents, teachers and staff. Everyone agrees that in-person classes should resume, but when and how remains controversial.

In Atlanta, a group called We Demand Safety APS has advocated for better safeguards before an in-person return. Another called Committee for APS Progress has advocated for an immediate in-person option.

The Reporter asked those groups for their opinions about the return plan. The answers, which were edited for length and clarity, were provided by David Hayes, a Buckhead resident and chairman of Committee for APS Progress, and the steering committee of We Demand Safety APS: Markesha Daniel, Canek Fuentes Hernandez, Allison Glass, Laura LaHiff, Andy McIntyre, Jennifer Rogers-Givens, Sara Totonchi, Elizabeth Wickland, Sara Zeigler and Robin Deutsch Edwards.

Q: Now that APS has set tentative in-person return dates, how much does that satisfy your group’s concerns?

Committee for APS Progress:

APS families have been shut out of schools for over 270 days and the option to return to face-to-face learning could not come soon enough. We were sitting in a similar situation in October, when the superintendent and Board of Education pulled the plug on that reopening plan and kept our schools closed to our children. We are cautiously optimistic, but have no faith in the superintendent or board that they will follow through with the current plan. We will believe when we see it.

We Demand Safety APS:

The entire APS community would like to return to face-to-face learning; however, it is essential that it be done in a way that prioritizes equity, safety and health for staff, students and their families. While we understand that there is tremendous pressure to reopen schools, we want to be sure this is done in an equitable manner that centers the needs and concerns of the most vulnerable among us.

Based on what was shared in the APS community Town Hall on Dec. 3, we appreciate that APS is prioritizing and funding upgrades to HVAC systems for all schools, developing a COVID-19 testing plan, and identifying a capacity cap for all schools of 60%. However, it is critical that efforts be made to improve transparency and communication.

Q: What is the most urgent concern that motivates your advocacy? 

We Demand Safety APS:

We would like the district and individual schools to be transparent about their aspirations for how in-person learning will be conducted versus what it will actually look like in schools. And in the push to return to in-person instruction, the most urgent concern should be the safety and needs of APS staff to ensure a successful learning environment for students. Voices and expertise of APS staff should be solicited and amplified, affirming success and innovation around virtual teaching and learning — and the expertise should be shared across the entire district so all schools can benefit and implement the safest and best educational models for learning in this unprecedented time.

The logo of the advocacy group We Demand Safety APS.

Committee for APS Progress:

We have seen a dramatic loss of learning and development in students at all levels from this extended period of school closures. Despite the hard work of APS teachers and staff, virtual learning is no substitute for face-to-face learning. We are fighting for the parents, students, teachers and staff who simply want the option to return to face-to-face learning. One size does not fit all, and it doesn’t have to. The ramifications of this extended period of school closure will be felt for years to come.

Q: Major concerns about in-person return timing are public health and quality of education. What are your points of agreement with those concerns and where do you differ with other advocates? 

Committee for APS Progress:

Our first priority is to give parents, students, teachers and staff the option to make their own personal decision on returning to face-to-face learning. This can be done safely by following the CDC guidelines. Right now there is no option. There will be COVID-19 cases in schools once they reopen. We fully expect there to be periods of quarantine and short-term closures. This is why a mitigation and isolation plan is vital. Volumes of recent public health research and studies tell us school is actually the safest for children during the pandemic and that face-to-face learning actually reduces overall community spread.

We Demand Safety APS:

We recognize that there are children who would benefit greatly from face-to-face instruction, especially children with disabilities and special learning needs, our youngest learners, those without adult supervision at home, those with internet connectivity issues, and those struggling with mental health concerns. We remain steadfast in our belief that the entire APS community would like to return to face-to-face learning; however, it is essential that it be done in a way that prioritizes equity, safety and health for staff, students and their families.

Recent studies suggest that while schools do not drive the spread of COVID-19 in communities where schools have been opened, they do mirror the rates of transmission of COVID-19 within their communities. We urge APS to engage state governmental and public health leadership in Georgia to prioritize supporting schools with additional resources to implement testing and contact tracing strategies.

Q: What has your group learned from the Fulton County School System, which has returned to in-person classes but also had to close many schools?

We Demand Safety APS:

One of the major lessons we have learned from school reopening efforts across the U.S. is that schools need to have a detailed mitigation strategy for ensuring the COVID transmissions can be prevented and detected rapidly. When schools do not put multiple mitigation strategies in place, such as 100% mask wearing, testing, and creative scheduling (e.g., cohorts, alternating or staggered schedules) to provide social distancing, COVID can spread — putting too many people at risk.

David Hayes, chairman of Committee for APS Progress.

Committee for APS Progress:

Obviously, COVID-19 cases are going to be a fixture of the next several months. The key is mitigation and isolation. What Fulton County and countless other school districts locally and nationally have shown us is 1) face-to-face learning can happen during this pandemic, and 2) the importance of a plan for mitigation at the school level. APS has not shown such a plan. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Unfortunately, there will COVID-19 cases when APS schools reopen; this will be true despite the diligent work and planning of the individual school principals. However, all the research shows that open schools don’t contribute to community spread. Instead, research has shown us that open schools are actually linked to reduction of community spread.

Q: Once the pandemic ends, are there any long-term changes to education policies or practices you would see coming from your advocacy? 

Committee for APS Progress:

Once schools reopen, the damage done to our students through school closure needs to be addressed and a plan for making up for this loss needs to be implemented. In the long term, we will be focused on electing an APS board that won’t allow politics to drive its decisions, that will hold the superintendent accountable, and that will make educating students its top priority.

We Demand Safety APS:

We hope that the voices and expertise of APS staff and the APS community are solicited and amplified beyond the current crisis. APS staff has shown great resilience and creativity during the pandemic and success stories should be acknowledged and recognized.

This pandemic has reminded all of us of the essential roles that teachers and schools play in our society — and how under-resourced schools are. It is time for us to consistently reward dedicated education professionals and ensure that our state resources prioritize funding for all public schools and teachers so that all students in Georgia can benefit equally.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.