About a dozen teachers and parents paraded in their cars Monday in front of Clarke County School District headquarters, honking their horns and waving signs to let administrators know they don’t approve of plans to reopen elementary and middle schools next month.
Parent Jami Howard Mays, who organized the protest, said she represents 17 teachers, as well as retired administrators and others, who’ve contacted her with concerns about reopening while the pandemic is still raging.
“I’m speaking for all the teachers and administrators who are scared to speak up for fear of losing their jobs,” she said.
Mays said CCSD is not taking into account teachers who are at risk for COVID-19. Nor, in virtual learning, is the district doing a good job of serving special-needs students, students who are helping younger siblings with lessons or those without internet access, she said. As a result, she said, teachers are leaving and parents are withdrawing their children. She also questioned CCSD’s commitment to equity when such policies primarily hurt Black and brown families.
Parents want more detail from CCSD about how administrators intend to guard against COVID-19, Mays said. For example: How many students will be returning for in-person instruction? What protocols are in place to ensure social distancing? And is the aging Clarke Middle School’s HVAC system up to the task?
“These teachers are worried they’re going to be sitting in stagnant air,” Mays said. According to public health experts, proper ventilation is key to slowing the spread of coronavirus indoors, along with masks and social distancing.
CCSD has released bare-bones plans for COVID prevention, most recently on Friday. Measures include requiring masks and social distancing, cracking windows on buses, assigned seating, updating and replacing filters on HVAC systems, increased cleaning and disinfection, eating meals in classrooms, turning off water fountains, and isolation spaces for students experiencing symptoms and awaiting pickup. Mays said the plans are not detailed enough and leave many questions unanswered. Administrators, however, have said they can’t answer some questions—like how many students will be assigned to each classroom and how many teachers will be teaching in person versus online—until they know how many parents want their children back in the classroom and how many will stick with virtual instruction.
School board member Antwon Stephens, who attended the protest, said he is pushing for a called meeting to address these issues and needs one more vote.
Interim Superintendent Xernona Thomas announced at the Oct. 7 school board meeting that CCSD is targeting Nov. 9 for a return to in-person instruction for those K-8 students whose parents choose that option. Distance learning is working for some, she said, but others are being left behind.
However, at that time Clarke County was getting close to the benchmark of 175 new cases per 100,000 people within the past 14 days that CCSD had set to reopen schools for K–2 students (the least vulnerable age group). That figure has since risen from 203 per 100,000 to 230, with the potential to rise further, given national trends and two recent University of Georgia home football games.
Thomas’ decision also sets aside previous plans for a phased approach. Under the current plan, K–8 students will be brought back all at once, rather than waiting until the number of cases per 100,000 drops to 150 for grades 3–5 and 125 for 6–8.
Parents had until Oct. 18 to pick, but Mays contended they didn’t have enough information to make a decision. “The thing I keep hearing from every parent is, ‘How can I make a decision when I don’t know what I’m deciding?’” she said.
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