CCSD communication lapses_graphic

Clarke County School District prepares for online classes, which start Sept. 8, 2020.

On July 6, teachers and staff in the Clarke County School District received an email that included answers to some frequently asked questions. One of the answers informed staff that a fear of the coronavirus would not be a valid excuse to miss school.

Nowhere in the email did the district address one of the teachers’ primary concerns: Would there be an option to teach virtually?

Four days later, the district confirmed in a separate FAQ that CCSD-certified teachers would instruct the students who opt to take virtual classes via Edgenuity and Google Classroom. A virtual option was offered to students in a letter to parents on July 7. As of Monday, it is still unclear if all teachers who want to teach virtually will be able to do so.

As CCSD tries to reopen its schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, the rapidly changing situation and confusion around its plans has upset some parents and teachers. The district currently plans on returning to the classroom on Sept. 8, more than a month after school was originally supposed to start.

“We’ve known this was coming for a long time,” said one CCSD elementary school teacher. “We assumed a very thoughtful plan was being put into place for students and staff. To find out this week that isn’t necessarily the case has been a little frustrating and frightening.”

Editor’s note: The Red & Black granted anonymity to the teacher to protect them from repercussions.

School year uncertainty

About one in five Georgia teachers are uncertain about returning to the classroom this fall, according to a survey of roughly 16,000 educators conducted by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators (PAGE). In a June CCSD survey, about 30% of the 1,400 respondents said they would consider teaching virtually if they had more information.

Teachers, administrators and parents trying to make decisions have had to rely on conflicting messages.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly urged schools to reopen in person this fall. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended returning to in-person instruction on June 26. They have since clarified their statement, saying that schools shouldn’t be compelled to reopen if local health experts suggest otherwise.

“No one has ever been down this road before,” Claire Suggs, senior education policy analyst for PAGE, said. “It’s really important that there be open and clear dialogue.”

The elementary school teacher said CCSD educators feel out-of-the-loop. There are no teachers, students or public health officials on the task force assigned to reopen school. Chris Woodward, a teacher at Clarke Middle School and member of the district’s Teacher Advisory Board, said the TAB hasn’t been consulted during the reopening process.

CCSD likely didn’t intend on assuming a harsh tone in the July 6 email, the elementary school teacher said, but the message was still a “slap in the face” to anxious educators. Antwon Stephens, the District 2 representative on the Board of Education, sympathized with teachers.

“It seemed like the teachers were being forced [to return] with their jobs on the line,” Stephens said. “The communication of these plans needs to come off better this next time, because there were a lot of things that even us at the board were confused by.”

CCSD wants to improve its discussions with the community, chief academic officer Brannon Gaskins said during a Board of Education meeting on July 9. The district has since solicited feedback from parents and teachers in an online form. It will also hold town hall meetings with members of the community.

“We acknowledge that we haven’t had the best communication,” Gaskins said.

‘Bare minimum information’

Kendra Kline hasn’t heard anything from the district regarding students with individualized education plans, a service offered to kids with delayed skills or other disabilities. A parent of a 3-year-old son enrolled in CCSD’s special education program, Kline is trying to weigh the risks of returning to school against her child’s need for hands-on support.

“I don’t feel like the district is giving people enough information to make that choice,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like they’re willing to have these hard conversations. It kind of seems like they just want to give people the bare minimum information.”

Board of Education president LaKeisha Gantt said she knows a lot of families have special circumstances they must consider while deciding between online and in-person instruction. Gantt has four children of her own, one of whom has allergies that can make it hard for them to breathe, as well as elderly parents and in-laws.

CCSD administration isn’t immune from the coronavirus. Xernona Thomas, the interim superintendent, was hospitalized with COVID-19. CCSD also isn’t the only district struggling with the reopening process. More than half of the 16,000 surveyed Georgia educators whose districts have released reopening plans don’t believe the plans are adequate, according to PAGE.

“For many boards and many districts, this has been a complex experience,” Gantt said. “There are a lot of moving pieces and factors that have to be taken into account.”

While children are at low risk for severe complications from COVID-19, teachers are worried about their own safety. There are more new confirmed cases than in March when school was shut down.

Still, distance learning has downsides, particularly for students of color who will likely be impacted disproportionately.

The racial achievement gap in CCSD between white and Black students is double the state average, according to a CCSD report. The report said Black students are typically 3.4 grade levels behind their white peers in the district. According to the report, 49% of students in CCSD are Black and 21% are white.

A study by EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that advocates for increased connectivity in public schools, estimates that around 5 million of the 10 million students nationwide without internet are Black or Latinx.

95% of respondents to a CCSD survey said they have reliable internet coverage, but the survey was administered online.

“The end goal is for everyone to be back at school,” Suggs said. “That’s what teachers want, that’s what families want, that’s what students want. But we want to do it as safely as possible.”