CURRENT BOARD OF EDUCATION ISSUES
From Allyson on School Reopening
As parents, students, and teachers have become aware of the District’s re-opening plan and timeline, many have asked whether the Board of Education must approve the plan or changes to the plan. The answer is no. The Board’s responsibility is to hire the Superintendent to run the district. Deciding when and how to transition staff and students into buildings is part of managing a school district, and the Board supports the Superintendent in performing that job. Of course, Board members can express personal or professional opinions and ask questions about the plan. Some of that occurs during monthly Board meetings when the Superintendent shares updates to the COVID Team’s plan.
Superintendent Watson-Harris is clearly in the best position to make decisions regarding our staff and students. She has access to various resources and viewpoints the Board and public do not have. For example, our Superintendent regularly meets with a panel of medical professionals. She also meets with advisory groups of teachers, parents, and students. Principals give her input, as do other metro Atlanta superintendents. This is in addition to her COVID Team’s constant contact with public health officials, the CDC, and colleagues on the ground in surrounding school districts. On top of all of this, our Superintendent has personal experience with COVID’s impact. Not only is she the parent of a DCSD student acclimating to virtual learning, but she also worked and lived in the early epicenter of the pandemic, New York City. She talks about the daily moment of silence held for the many NYCDOE employees, relatives, and colleagues who were lost to COVID. She is aware of the risks and absolutely committed to the health and safety of our staff and students.
When asked my opinion about a return to school, I give the same answer I’ve given throughout the pandemic. As a trained school psychologist, I’m particularly sensitive to the mental health needs of our community. This pandemic is causing trauma for our students, parents, and staff. According to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) and the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), districts must recognize the potential for higher rates of adverse childhood experiences (ACES) during school closures. Early in the pandemic, when social media was awash with messages of #stayathome and #saferathome, I was reminded that home is not a safe place for everyone. Those of us who have worked in public schools know that, for many students, safety is only found at school. When children do not have access to school, they often lose access to food, climate control, mental health services, medical assistance, and adults who can recognize a fresh bruise or flat affect. Regardless of race or socioeconomic status, many kids, while home, are exposed to significant stressors related to parental job loss, financial strains, COVID anxiety, and increased substance use. Furthermore, there is no social-emotional developmental phase of childhood where isolation and daylong screen use are recommended.
Many of these same stressors are impacting our teachers. According to the ASCA and NASP, districts must focus on both physical and psychological safety. Mitigation measures such as mask wearing, social distancing, sanitation, and hand hygiene are critical, but it’s also important to recognize staff members’ losses (financial, personal, medical), their exposure to ACES, and their need for a nurturing climate. Our District has been working for months to ensure physical safety. DCSD has been among the most conservative in the Atlanta area (and the nation) in our return to work. In part, this is because our COVID Team is committed to a data-driven approach and would not consider opening buildings while DeKalb County had substantial COVID spread. Now that the spread is subsiding and the mitigation measures are ready for implementation, a physically safe re-entry is attainable. That leaves the psychological component.
Our District has incorporated a strong focus on staff mental health—not just during COVID, but over the last few years. Teachers have been trained on self-care and compassion fatigue—they are familiar with their field’s emotional toll and the need for boundary-setting. What makes the teachers’ return to work unique is that, unlike most other frontline workers, they did not enter a career where they ever expected to be put in danger. Many teachers chose teaching because they love the interpersonal connection with students, and they use those relationships to develop students’ academic and social-emotional skills. Teachers must feel safe in order to perform their jobs effectively. I believe the slow transition of teachers into classrooms is one way the District is addressing psychological safety.
As it has been since March, the District’s plan will continue changing. COVID numbers will shift, public health recommendations will evolve, and rates of transmission within schools will become available. The process will not be smooth—expect bumps. We do not have tried-and-true best practices for meeting academic, social, and emotional needs during a pandemic. We do, however, know that we will not see academic progress if we do not address mental health. Walking over the threshold into a school building will be a huge psychological step for staff and students. For myself and friends in other districts, being back in one’s workspace brings unexpected joy. The mental health boost that occurs when humans are reconnected with those working toward the same goals is powerful. Psychological safety will increase when teachers and students witness all the mitigation measures in place to ensure physical safety.
I’m thankful every day for our brilliant Superintendent and her team, who are aware of all these challenges and working 24/7 to address them. Please continue to be patient as we all navigate through uncharted territory. Our District is not simply in good hands, it is in the best hands.
How is the District responding to COVID-19?
The Board of Education is fully supporting Superintendent Watson-Harris in her decision-making surrounding this crisis. Ms. Watson-Harris is in regular contact with the Georgia DOE, the Metro Superintendents Network, the Governor's Office, DeKalb County Government, the DeKalb Department of Public Health, leaders of local municipalities, DEMA and GEMA. She is also working with partners, such as Emory University and the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
For the 2020-2021 school year, all schools will open with distance/remote learning. Superintendent Watson-Harris will monitor the COVID crisis and adjust plans based on the latest public health guidance. When COVID community spread is substantial, the online model is the safest choice. However, this will be re-evaluated monthly, and other learning models, such as a hybrid option, may be considered.
Will you be endorsing any individuals running for elected office?
No. The Board has strict policies about separating personal and Board activities. In the past, I've declined to make endorsements, whether as an individual or as a Board member, because the line between them can be blurred. Please see the DCSD Board policy on "Board Member Political Activity" for more information.
What is your position on the audit committee?
I believe the Board of Education should have a functioning audit committee. During 2019, I asked for the Audit Committee to meet or for the Board Chair to convene a Committee of the Whole on the audit. I discovered that the Board of Education's Audit Committee had not met since 2012. Obviously, the Board's oversight of the audit has not been working. I'm in favor of changing the Board policy to create an Audit Committee that works. I'm less invested in the makeup of the committee than I am the fact that it meets and studies the annual audit.
What is your position on "cascading redistricting"?
Several years ago, I was part of a committee of school principals and designated parent leaders who reviewed Secondary School Facilities Plan and Feasibility Study options. One of the options presented was a solution to solve overcrowding by redistricting rather than building new schools/additions. It pushed kids out of their neighborhood schools, and sometimes even forced them to travel past adjacent schools. This potentially left students/families unable to participate in many aspects of school/extracurricular life due to lack of transportation and access. If the Comprehensive Master Plan suggests this type of redistricting is best for our students, I will reconsider it. .