Fulton Superintendent explains plan to phase in face-to-face learning after Labor Day

FULTON COUNTY, Ga. — Fulton County’s School Superintendent has proposed a plan to bring children back to the classroom, but only if he believes conditions are safe.

At Thursday night’s school board meeting, Dr. Mike Looney presented a matrix laying out various phases under which the district could resume face-to-face instruction.

Last week, Looney announced the district would start the year remotely because of a rise in community spread of COVID-19. Thursday, he reiterated his concerns.

“There’s no way to guarantee the safety of everybody and we realize that COVID is likely to be around for some time, at least until there’s a vaccine or something else happens,” he said. “The question becomes how quickly can we get back to traditional face-to-face instruction?”

After public comment, which included many parents from North Fulton County insisting it was safe to return to schools, Looney doubled down on his belief in following the data.

“Our teachers want one thing. Our parents want something else. The business community, government, elected officials want other things,” he said. “At the end of the day I’m not the type of leader that’s going to succumb to pressure or popular opinion. I’m going to make decisions based on the data I believe are in the best interest of the district.”

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Looney said he’s been in touch with experts in various fields, including healthcare and education.

“The data was pointing in the wrong direction. It still is in the county. In fact, I’ve been told by several people that are knowledgeable about the topic that we are perhaps two weeks or so behind Florida and Texas,” he said. “I believe the worse thing we could do for our families is to open our doors, close the doors two days later, reopen, close, reopen, close, there being this rubber band effect happening this first semester creating discontinuity in student learning, upheaving families lives, work and schedules.”

Under the proposal, On September 8th, the district would allow some small groups of students in pre-K through second grades as well as special education students, back into buildings one day a week for a few hours. Other students could meet face-to-face with their teachers by appointment only. District officials said that will only happen if there’s a decline in COVID-19 positivity rates for 14 straight days within the footprint of the school district, or if the positive diagnosis rate was lower than 175 people per 100,000 people.

Each subsequent phase calls for more face-to-face instruction based on the level of positive cases and community spread, with the goal of returning to face-to-face classes for all if cases continue to decline and the positive diagnosis rate falls below 100 people per 100,000 people.

Dr. Looney said the current plan is district-wide, but at the prodding of school board members Katie Reeves and Linda McCain, he said he would explore whether the district could open certain school clusters where spread wasn’t as high.

“This gives everyone else a little more time to watch those health indicators to see whether they are improving,” parent LaTonya Martin Rogers said during public comment Thursday night. “We have not been in a situation to find out if kids actually can be super spreaders. There’s still quite a bit of uncertainty.”

Parent Jennifer Normanly is among those parents pushing for school to reopen sooner than later. Her son Jack has special needs and she said he struggled mightily with virtual learning.

“Digital learning was no learning for Jack. It’s not a format that translates for him and for quite frankly, his peers,” she said. “Jack requires structure and routine. It’s something the school does really well, just not delivered well in our home setting.”

The phase-in plan was met with cynicism on social media, with some parents calling it impossible to pull off, and others saying it didn’t go far enough.

Parent Laura Boggs, whose daughter has special needs, copied Channel 2′s Mike Petchenik on a letter she sent to district leadership Friday.

“Three hours per week does not an education make,” she wrote. “Ultimately, I ask that you consider the failure to deliver FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education) with this newly approved phasing-in plan, and that you tweak it. Please allow special-needs students to access the in-person instruction that is their only real chance to work on IEP goals and to receive the therapy and adapted services outlined in these legally binding documents.”

Meantime, teachers told Petchenik they continue to be concerned about plans that require them to physically return to school buildings to teach remote classes.

Thursday, school officials told the school board doing so would allow for more accountability for teachers to ensure they are carrying out lesson plans and interacting with students remotely. Some teachers e-mailed Petchenik anonymously that this was a “slap in the face” and insulting that leadership didn’t trust teachers to do their jobs from home.

Dr. Looney said the district was still working on a plan to address teachers who are also parents and whether they could bring their own kids into the classroom with them.