FULTON COUNTY, Ga. — With COVID-19 positive cases in Fulton County appearing to level, school system leaders face the decision of when students can return to the classroom, where most experts believe learning is best achieved. For many parents in the district, a return to in-school learning could not come quickly enough.

The “phased-reopening” plan released by the Fulton County School System last month does not see that happening for most students until well after Labor Day. Small groups of younger students (K-2) and those in special education programs could return for a short time, one day a week, in the second week of September.

The district’s criteria for an in-person return is driven by the countywide “new diagnosis” rate falling below 100 cases per 100,000 population over the previous two weeks.

Compounding the issue is the data includes the City of Atlanta, which accounts for more than half of the COVID-19 cases in Fulton County, and which has its own school system.

Cities in North Fulton, including Alpharetta, Johns Creek, Milton and Roswell, account for fewer than 20 percent of cases; with most already nearing the threshold of 100/100K.

Fulton Schools says at this time the district is looked at as a whole for reopening, regardless of whether local data differs. Students will still have the option of remote learning.

“We continue to look at the possibility of opening sections of the district based on more localized community spread, but have identified numerous operational obstacles to such a plan,” said Brian Noyes, director of communication for Fulton Schools.

Those obstacles include transportation, resources and staffing among other concerns of having different instructional plans across the district’s more than 100 schools. However, some parents pushed back on the plans for reopening.

“I find the opening matrix disappointing, as it does not give our most at-risk students who need the [in-person instruction] the most the prioritization they deserve,” parent Martine Zurinskas said. “I am also disappointed we are looking at Fulton County data as a whole [because it is not] an accurate representation for Fulton County Schools.”

Many parents took to the district’s social media sites to ask similar questions, including why it is safe enough for sports to resume but not safe enough for students to return.

“Why restrict kids when they don’t have to be?” one North Fulton parent asked.

In Gwinnett County Schools, the state’s largest school system, plans are on the fast track to return its 180,000 students to the classroom once data supports it. The district will open with virtual learning for the first two weeks, then gradually open more face-to-face opportunities until all students can return to school after Labor Day.

Noyes confirmed Fulton Schools leaders are in constant communication with other metro districts where they share knowledge and strategies, including reopening criteria.

He said he is aware of reports of an increase in private school enrollment, as most private schools in the area are opening with in-person learning. Fulton Schools has seen declining enrollment over the past several years and had expected to enroll fewer students this year — even before the pandemic struck.

“As in any year, we see parents making choices regarding private and home school options,” Noyes said. “In our current environment, we anticipate we will see both withdraws and new enrollments associated with these choices. It is impossible to fully assess the net impact this year until after the 20th day count.”

Next year’s projected enrollment is expected to fall to just under 94,000 students — returning to levels last seen in 2013.

Candy Waylock is an award winning education reporter who has covered all things education for Appen Media over the past 20 years. She is an Alpharetta resident.

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