DeKalb students return to in-person learning

After spending most of the 2020-21 school year instructing and learning virtually, DeKalb County School District students began returning to buildings March 9 with more than two and a half months remaining in the school year.  

Pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, first-grade, second-grade, sixth-grade and ninth-grade students were allowed to return March 9 return for in-person learning; Grade levels third, fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth, 10th, 11th and 12th can return  to buildings March 15.

DeKalb County School District began returning pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, first-grade, second-grade, sixth-grade and ninth-grade students to in-person learning March 9. Photos by Jay Phillips

While the positivity rate of COVID-19 cases has seen a decline in recent months, many district teachers—whom were to report back to their facilities Feb. 3—have expressed concerns about working in school buildings, even moreso when students return. 

The district has not provided data per The Champion’s request regarding how many teachers have not returned to their designated school building since Feb. 3; However, since January, the district has reported 40 teacher resignations. In February, the human resources department reported 71 total staff vacancies, the most the district has seen since starting the 2020-21 school year.

Since Jan. 1, the district stated in an email that, 508 FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act of 1993) requests have been submitted. FMLA, per the U.S. Department of Labor, entitles eligible employees to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee were not on leave.

In an effort to plan for or curtail teachers’ vacancies, the district’s Department of Parent and Family Engagement began soliciting in February parents’ and guardians’ interest in substitute teaching and teaching within the district. While the district may be seeing a decrease in teachers in buildings March 9, some schools also have seen a decrease in enrollment. 

Due to a decline in enrollment in some schools, nearly a dozen District 1 teachers, according to District 1 board member Anna Hill, have recently been transferred to other schools due to noncompliance with the Georgia Department of Education’s comparability policy. Demonstrating comparability is required to receive Title 1 funds and meeting comparability means that the district provides services in the Title I schools that are at least comparable to services the district provides in the non-Title 1 schools, according to the Georgia DOE.

“This is in regard to the comparability assessment that happens every year in our school district,” said Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris while meeting with Dekalb County’s legislative delegation. “Unfortunately, some of our Region 1 schools had a tremendous loss in student enrollment…many parents who were really adamant about a return to face-to-face instruction…I’m a mother, I don’t believe that moving teachers at this time of the year in the midst of a pandemic when we’re planning on returning in March is in the best interest of our children.”

According to survey data provided by the district regarding parents’ intent to return their child to school, an estimated 43 percent of those who responded indicated that they plan let their child attend school under a hybrid model. The interest in in-person learning appeared to have the largest margins among parents of elementary students.   

“Principals utilized various methods to continue to reach out to parents after the survey closed to determine their intent to return. These methods included phone calls, additional surveys, and emails, to name a few. The district has not collected updated intent to return data since the close of the survey,” the district stated in an email March 4.   

While teachers don’t have much of a say in teaching from school buildings, some hope to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, which was available to teachers and staff in Georgia beginning March 8, the day before Dekalb students’ returned, though several teachers have crossed state lines into Alabama to receive the vaccine. 

Gov. Brian Kemp has stressed that he wants all Georgia public schools to return to in-person instruction before year’s end as teachers are vaccinated, saying online classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic have dampened students’ education progress for too long, according to Capitol News Beat Service.

“Virtual schooling is leaving too many children behind and parents at their wits’ end,” Kemp said. “We must have students back in the classroom, five days a week.”

Officials stressed Georgians should pre-register now for a vaccine appointment on the state’s sign-up website, even if they are not yet eligible. The website, https://myvaccinegeorgia.com/, will automatically alert people once they’re eligible and will schedule an appointment.

Watson-Harris said approximately 70 percent of district teachers so far have indicated their interest in receiving the vaccine. She added that school nurses have been trained by the Dekalb Board of Health to administer the vaccine to staff.

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