OP/ED DeKalb County School District putting faculty, families at risk of COVID-19

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New superintendent ‘doesn’t yet know what she’s doing’   


By Deborah Jones

President, Organization of DeKalb Educators(ODE)

The DeKalb County School District is not being honest with the public. In doing so, the superintendent and the board are risking the lives of all DeKalb families. You won’t find newsletters or tweets or videos announcing the new ventilation equipment or kn95 masks it has purchased for students and employees. However, the district has celebrated its $10 million budget surplus. The district should make good on its commitment ” to keep the health and safety of our employees a number one priority.” The sooner it does, the sooner students can return to school buildings.

Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris was truthful in newsletter #23 distributed on Friday(Jan. 29). She admitted that “we have been consistent in our approach.” Under her leadership and the board’s support, it appears this district has approached Covid-19 as a public relations issue—not a public health issue. Read that newsletter or her recent emails and ask yourself if she even understands how much Covid-19 has devastated our Black and Brown community.

Instead of actual up-to-date safety procedures, the district’s website has published vague and sometimes contradictory descriptions that haven’t been updated since October. Instead of clear processes, employees get late night emails telling them to direct their questions to equally uniformed supervisors. Instead of talking to the employees necessary for any mitigation to work, the superintendent talks to the press and to parents in tweets, videos, and interviews that suggest time and again that the superintendent doesn’t yet know what she’s doing, or she has not considered how Covid-19 could ravage the more than 575 000 Black and Brown people that make up over 70 % of the people who live in DeKalb.

The superintendent implies that the CDC has provided no context or qualification for its recommendation “that schools should reopen as soon as possible.”  Community spread is not low. And spread seems to be taking place among employees as buildings have already had to close this week because of Covid-19 exposure. When the superintendent “welcomed” employees back on January 4, she didn’t require employees to do the CDC-recommended health check. The board didn’t require the superintendent to publish clear guidelines for quarantining and isolating when an employee or someone in their house tests positive, even if they are asymptomatic. The board didn’t require a clear, published process for contact tracing. No one knows just how many employees reported to work and possibly exposed other people while working in buildings since August. The superintendent and the board moved to phase 1 of its reopening in January- with even more employees working at schools and work sites. Did they get any better at mitigation?

Worse, the superintendent mandated all 15,500 employees return to buildings on February 3 when she knew that Covid-19 had shut down public safety in mid-January and again this week. Even so, she still refused to establish quarantining and isolation guidelines or publish Covid-19 cases so employees and the public could see the efficacy of purported mitigation strategies before bringing back thousands of students. How can the board, parents, and employees know which buildings might be at more risk of transmission because their outdated HVAC systems won’t accommodate the MERV-rated filters recommended to curb spread?

The Organization of DeKalb Educators and all its members support a plan driven by actual public health and we stand eager to work in collaboration with the DeKalb County School District to ensure success for all students. Our hope is that you will help the faculties and staffs of DeKalb convince the superintendent and the Board that now is not the time to return our students and staffs to unsafe buildings by allowing your voices to be heard. Our ask is that you will contact the superintendent and the Board with concerns for the way the district is implementing its return to buildings.  We (students, faculties and staffs) are depending on your voices to help change the way the district handles the return.

Our commitment to DeKalb County pre-dates this superintendent’s arrival in July or board members’ terms. We look forward to F2F as soon as March, if Covid-19 spread is low after the school district has established and published clear, usable criteria and procedures for school administrators, school nurses, and all DCSD employees.  Until then, employees who desire should continue to work remotely where technology and virtual instruction may also be better.

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