The superintendent of Fulton County Schools, Mike Looney, spoke with NPR’s Morning Edition anchor Rachel Martin about how the district is seeking to safely resume classes on Aug. 17 in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

Fulton County Schools — like many school districts across the nation — is having to make important decisions about how to resume instruction while also grappling with a rapidly changing public health environment. 

Looney spoke candidly in the wide-ranging interview, touching on the possibility of schools having to close for a few days due to the pandemic to the worst-case scenario of the district having to shut down entirely.

“It is a very, very fluid situation,” Looney said in the interview which aired nation-wide Thursday morning.

The district is offering students and families the choice between receiving instruction through online courses or in the traditional in-person instruction format, Looney said. In-person instruction would be focused more on small groups in hopes of minimizing the virus’ ability to spread in the schools. That is along with other measures, Looney said.

In his discussion with Martin, Looney outlined how — with COVID-19 case numbers constantly changing — the Fulton County Public Schools is developing strategies that enable them to respond quickly and transparently to the virus inside the schools. 

The district has released a “School Closure Decision Matrix,” a chart which outlines how the district will react when certain COVID thresholds are passed. The matrix uses the virus’ spread out in the broader community as well as spread inside the school to determine what course to take, ranging from closing school facilities for 24 hours to closing facilities until further notice.

The administration created the matrix in order to help community members understand how the school district will respond in certain situations by making those criteria clear and public. This is hoping to give the community context as to why the district is responding in the way it is.

“What I have tried to communicate is that, who’s really in control is our community,” Looney said. “All we can do is simply respond to the environment that we’ve been given in order to operate. We also have to take the level of community spread to inform our decision.”

The matrix breaks down the situation on two playing fields. One is the level of community spread, which is described in three categories: substantial, moderate, or low. This categorization is based on cases per 100,000 residents, with 5 cases per 100,000 residents being categorized as low, and substantial being categorized as 100 cases per 100,000 residents.

The second area of concern is the virus’ presence in the schools themselves. If one student or one faculty member tests positive, depending on the level of community spread, the school would close for between 24 to 72 hours, according to the matrix. That’s criteria 1. 

If five or more cases in multiple clusters are reported — or criteria 4 — the schools will shut down for 14 days if the community spread is moderate or low. But in the substantial range, the district would close until further notice. All this data is available to the community in hopes that the public understands what the district is doing and why.

 

“Rather than talking about individual students and individual employees, we can simply say, ‘We’re in a L-1 situation, which is a single case in a single school and that’s happening in the context of a low level of community spread. And therefore our reaction is this,’” Looney said.

But throughout the conversation, Looney spoke about the various complicated factors that are at play as the administration tries to get the state’s fourth largest school district safely back to class.

Looney described that, with many teachers being in the demographic that is at greater risk, many staff members have expressed “serious concerns” about returning to in person instruction due to the coronavirus, Looney said. He said some have requested online placement due to health concerns, but the district has also seen some teachers decide to retire early instead.

He also mentioned the school district has seen $26 million cut as a result of statewide budget woes brought on by the pandemic, meaning the district is trying to provide the same level of instruction and services with less.

Looney said the district is, as of now, trying not to furlough or lay off employees to fill the budget shortfall, but that might not be sustainable, he said.

On top of that, with the coronavirus hitting minority and poor communities hardest, Looney was asked if there is concern that the school closures due to community spread would cause minority students to lag farther behind. But the district is seeking to counteract that, Looney said.

“Remote learning — virtual learning — does not offer the same rigor or depth that traditional, face-to-face instruction [does],” Looney said. “And you know, we have so many people working hard to make sure that we don’t lose ground with our most vulnerable students — but the reality of this is, we will.” 

The district is implementing summer programs to help ensure students don’t fall behind due to the shift to online learning. But, with the closing matrix, Looney indicated that the district is leaving it up to the community to determine what school will look like.

“What we’re doing today is going to impact what schools look like August 17,” Looney said. “We are not going to compromise the safety of our students and/or staff. And so the more that our community does today, the higher the likelihood of us opening on schedule and in traditional face to face instruction.”
 

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