This story was updated at 12:15 p.m. Thursday with an additional comment from Cherokee County School District spokeswoman Barbara Jacoby on the system’s policies and guidelines for employee speech.
Over 675,000 students in eight of Georgia’s 10 largest school districts will start the fall semester virtually.
Those districts: Gwinnett, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, Clayton and Henry county schools, as well as Atlanta Public Schools and Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools, represent nearly 40% of Georgia’s public students.
And now the state Board of Education may decide at its Thursday meeting to push schools to delay the start of school statewide until Sept. 8, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The move would follow weeks of public debate – both here in Georgia and nationally – over whether it’s safe to resume in-person classes at K-12 schools. Gov. Brian Kemp said just last week that “kids need to be in the classroom.”
The word “relief” came up in multiple interviews with teachers from districts planning to take school online. Those educators said they are eager to return to the classroom but would not feel safe doing so until the COVID-19 pandemic is under control.
COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Georgia, and on Wednesday, the state saw its second-highest daily death count since the pandemic began with 81 fatalities.
Several of the larger districts cited the worsening numbers and reversed course on previous decisions to offer both in-person or online courses to students. Cobb County Superintendent Chris Ragsdale made the switch July 16, citing high infection rates in the county.
Cobb County teacher Tracy Efaw sent Ragsdale a thank-you note after the announcement. Efaw lives with a family member who is in a higher risk category for complications from COVID-19.
“I was starting a plan, in case I wasn’t chosen to be an online teacher, to live in our basement, separate from my family — for however long — and with still no guarantee of his safety,” she said. “We are fortunate to have a split-level house that could accommodate this arrangement, but where do you draw the line of the lengths one is willing to go with job loyalty and dedication? Essentially, this setup would have placed my job above my own health and that of my family’s.”
Stress surrounding school re-openings has led to protests around the state. One Cobb teacher, Chantae Pittman, was part of a small group of protestors outside the State Capitol last week urging lawmakers not to rush back to in-person learning. Pittman applauds Cobb’s decision, but worries about her colleagues in other parts of the state.
“Some of our counties in central Georgia are going back to school Aug. 3, in person, with no option for online learning, so we’re fighting for all of those counties,” she said. “We’re fighting for … all of these other counties who have the opportunity to start school virtually, safely. We do want to return, but we want to return back to school face-to-face when it’s safe.”
Fear of speaking out
Among Georgia’s 10 largest districts, the two still planning to offer in-person learning are Forsyth and Cherokee counties, both of which will allow families to choose online instruction. Neither district is planning to mandate face masks for students.
Forsyth’s school board voted Tuesday to push back the start of the school year one week to Aug. 13 while still offering both in-person and online learning options. Cherokee County plans to start Aug. 3 as originally scheduled.
A group of Cherokee County teachers spoke out at the July 9 meeting where the board voted on its reopening plan and asked the board to implement stricter safety measures, including a mask mandate. But Cherokee educators have been more reluctant to speak publicly since then, with a handful of them telling the Georgia Recorder they fear retaliation for expressing their unease about the reopening plan to the media or over their personal social media accounts.
Cherokee County policy guidelines bar educators from speaking out online or to reporters without the risk of disciplinary action. Barbara Jacoby, the district’s spokeswoman, said Thursday that the district does not prohibit speech; rather, she said policies and guidelines “set agreed-upon limitations, similar to what most workers agree to in their various professions and/or places of employment.”
One Cherokee County teacher, who asked not to be named, shared an email from the school’s HR department denying a request to use personal money to install plexiglass screens in the classroom.
Plastic screens will be installed at stationary locations such as the front desk and cafeteria cashier’s stand, but not in classrooms, where teachers and students move about frequently, Jacoby said. She said the district is buying wearable plastic face shields.
“As any place of employment, we have guidelines for what our employees can add to their workplaces, and, based upon a review by risk management, plastic barriers cannot be self-installed by employees,” she said.
Many teachers are afraid to make their concerns public because Georgia is a right-to-work state and educators are not protected from retaliation, said Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers.
“The Department of Education comes up with rules, and they have many of them, where they keep teachers right under their feet, and that’s why teachers are scared to say,” Turner said. “If they don’t have an atmosphere that empowers them, you have an atmosphere that causes them to be afraid.
“The other thing is that all of us have to work for a living, so if they have bills, which they do, they’re only going to do so much so they won’t lose their jobs, lose their income, so that also causes teachers to be afraid,” she said.
‘Teachers are humans, we’re not robots’
President Donald Trump has called for schools to reopen as normal in the fall and threatened to divert federal funding from schools that do not.
Kemp has also stressed the importance of in-person learning, but he said last week he was not considering mandating in-person instruction.
State Superintendent Richard Woods has also advocated for face-to-face learning, but he said in a statement Tuesday that his agency will support Georgia schools regardless of their plans.
“The role of the Georgia Department of Education is to support the course of action decided upon by local school districts, so that we can work together to ensure a successful outcome for students,” Woods said. “Whatever the start of school looks like, no one can guarantee a start without hiccups or challenges, but I can guarantee we will do everything possible to ensure our students are safe and learning.”
Already, it’s been a tough few months for teachers. They were forced to quickly adapt to online teaching after schools abruptly shut down in March, and the budget signed by Gov. Brian Kemp last month includes nearly $1 billion in cuts to education. Educators started the year with the promise of a pay raise, only to see it vanish after state revenues dropped.
Over a dozen Georgia teachers from across the state told the Georgia Recorder they would like to be in the classroom again but don’t believe returning would be safe for the children or their own families. Some feel like political pawns during an election year, said Pittman of Cobb.
“Teachers are humans, we’re not robots,” she said. “We have lives, we have children, we have families to take care of, and we do not have the funding to actually open face-to-face and it be 100% safe.
“Teachers have been carrying society on their backs, and right now, the government is making reopening schools all about politics, and it should not be. It should be about flattening this curve so we can get back to teaching.”