Thursday, January 21, 2021

A School District Vowed to Stay Open, Until Its Staffing Ran Out

By Dan Levin

    Jan. 21, 2021Updated 1:56 p.m. ET


Twice, Lizzy was forced to stay home for 14 days after exposure to infected classmates. The school closed its doors twice during the fall. Then, just after students returned from winter break, every school in the district shifted to remote classes as staffing shortages grew unmanageable and the local hospital was overwhelmed.

“This is what you get when you don’t try to protect the people in the schools,” said Lizzy, 17.

She attends River Ridge High School in Cherokee County, a largely white stretch of suburbs north of Atlanta that is among the state’s wealthiest. Despite heated opposition from some parents and teachers, the district’s approach to the fall semester reflected the urging of former President Donald J. Trump, who won nearly 70 percent of the county’s vote in November, and Gov. Brian Kemp, also a Republican: Open the schools, and keep them that way.

The community largely supported that direction, and teachers, who lack the union protections of their peers in some other parts of the country, had little power to push back.

Some families said they felt pressured to return — the district offered an unappealing remote alternative, and students enrolled in it couldn’t take certain courses or participate in sports. As a result, nearly 80 percent of the district’s 41,000 students chose to return in August for full-time, in-person classes.

When the doors opened, classrooms and hallways were crowded, football games were packed and masks were optional for students. Nearly 1,200 students were required to quarantine, and three high schools were closed temporarily within the first two weeks of the semester’s start.


That month, the family of a hospitalized middle school math teacher started a GoFundMe campaign to help pay his medical bills, and half of the district’s six high schools and an elementary school temporarily ceased in-person instruction and gave final exams online because of a rise in cases at each campus.

Yet the district maintained course, with many parents saying they were convinced the schools did the right thing by teaching in person.


Beckett Blencoe, 11, said he was floundering in virtual sixth grade, and even his parents have struggled to help him at times. In one case, they discovered that the material in his computer applications class matched that of a university marketing course.

“This kid just came out of elementary school, and he is basically teaching himself,” said his mother, Ashley Blencoe. “It’s really tough because he’s smart, but he’s getting no actual teacher instruction.”

Throughout the fall, as infections and quarantine orders continued to rise, some parents took to Facebook, urging others to keep sick children home and to stop testing them for the coronavirus or reporting positive cases to schools, out of fear that the district might shift to remote learning if enough cases were discovered.

“No sense in affecting other kids who need in-person schooling for academic success and those who need sports,” one mother wrote.

Many teachers said they were reluctant to speak out for fear of losing their jobs. But a local group called Educators for Common Sense and Safety lobbied on their behalf throughout the summer and fall for a student mask requirement and other safety precautions — without success.


At school board meetings, some parents expressed doubt about the need for masks and said they infringed on personal freedom. Their sentiments were echoed by board members, one of whom dismissed the idea of a student mask mandate as a “warm, feel-good fuzzy thing.”


The district had no plans to change anything for the spring semester, Barbara Jacoby, a spokeswoman for the schools, said in an email in December. “As long as we are operating in-person school during a pandemic, there will be positive cases among students and staff due to the virus circulating in our community,” she wrote.

All that changed on Jan. 8, when the superintendent, Brian V. Hightower, took a drastically different position in an email to families: More than 400 teachers and other staff members couldn’t report to school, he said, because they were infected or quarantined, and there weren’t enough substitutes to fill in.

“Cases are higher in our community, our state and our nation than ever before,” Mr. Hightower said. “Health experts are voicing concerns that a new Covid-19 strain now circulating in our nation will spread faster among everyone, including school-age children. Our hospitals are full.”

As a result, he closed all of the district’s schools and shifted to remote learning for at least a week to allow students, families and staff members “to get healthier.” Then it became at least two weeks. Dr. Hightower said the district remained committed to in-person instruction but could not operate safely with so many staff absences.

Tiffany Robbins, an English teacher at Dean Rusk Middle School and the president of the Cherokee Educators Association, bemoaned the fact that it took a staffing crisis for the schools to take significant action. “It’s not about safety,” she said.

She said that many people in the district had shown little interest in slowing down the virus, and that the constant disruptions had been the cost: “Our community hasn’t looked at this and said, ‘Oh, wow, maybe we could do something to mitigate the spread.’”

No comments:

Post a Comment