Superintendent's message as DeKalb County Schools continues its move toward in-person learning

DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris released a video on Sunday addressing faculty and staff as the school district begins to offer in-class learning again this upcoming semester.

"School buildings will be open on Jan. 4. If you are ready to return to set up your classrooms, you may do so at that time," the superintendent said in the video post to the district’s YouTube channel.

But many teachers have said they aren’t ready to return. Last Tuesday, hundreds of parent, teacher, and student protesters lined up along the road near the entrance to the DeKalb County School District’s main office. They said they’re outraged the district wants to resume in-person learning as COVID-19 numbers again are on the rise.

WATCH: FOX 5 Atlanta live news coverage


Those numbers, released by the Georgia Department of Public Health, have shown a steady rise in coronavirus cases in the last few weeks across the state. In the last four days alone, the two-week average for new coronavirus cases has been at or above record-breaking levels. Hospitalizations also are at their highest since last July.

According to the GDPH, just under 21 percent of all confirmed coronavirus cases in DeKalb County have happened in the nearly three weeks since Dec. 14. As of Sunday, the state reports 36,546 cases in DeKalb County since the start of the pandemic. That number doesn’t include the nearly 3,000 antigen confirmed cases.

Advocates for teachers in DeKalb County gathered at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church to discuss the decision to return to the classroom and offer prayers for teachers on Jan. 3, 2021. (FOX 5)

Sunday, a group advocating on behalf of teachers gathered at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. Organizers called for the district to remain fully virtual and said the current positivity rate is higher than it was when the decision was made to give students the option to return to the classroom.

School officials said the choice to return to classrooms is based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as feedback from principals, staff, and parents.

"Many of you are returning to schools and offices for the first time since March. And I know that the adjustment to returning to the building may be difficult for some," the superintendent said during her video address. "The ‘ask’ of all of us during this time has been to practice compassion over compliance and to be flexible and patient."

Sign up for FOX 5 email alerts

While in classrooms, students, staff, and faculty will be required to remain as socially distant as much as possible and wear masks consistently.

Any parents who feel uncomfortable sending their children to school will still have the option of continuing to have them learn virtually. Employees who qualify for accommodation under the Americans with Disability Act will have the option to telework, but in order to do so, they must complete an application and provide medical certification.

"Our human resources staff, our regional superintendent, and our principals have been charged with actualizing this approach and to work with each teacher and staff member to best assess and accommodate your unique situations," the superintendent said. "We recognize there are staff members with underlying health concerns, some who are caring for a family member or staff member who have child care challenges. Our goal again is to be flexible, patient, and compassionate."

Teachers and staff will return from Jan. 4 through Jan. 8. On January 19, students in Pre-K through second grades, sixth grade, and ninth grade can return or continue virtual learning from home. Students in the remaining grade levels can return on January 25 on a hybrid model.

"These two weeks will allow principals and teachers the time to complete class lists for students that will be returning to face-to-face as well as provide professional development and other supports needed for staff members who choose to return to the building," the superintendent said.

Download the FOX 5 Atlanta app for breaking news and weather alerts.

The superintendent said administrators are committed to working with teachers to provide alternative work assignment options including adjusted schedules and adjusted work locations for those submitting requests.

"I believe we are the right people at this very time to do what is right for our children," the superintendent said. "You have my pledge that we will continue to proceed thoughtfully, strategically, and transparently while being flexible, patient, and compassionate."

Officials said they will also continue to monitor the latest COVID-19 numbers in the county to determine when and if to adjust the school system's plans. The superintendent said she is looking forward to addressing the DeKalb County Board of Education on Jan. 11 to give a full update on the return to school plan.

For more information about the re-opening plan, click here.