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Atlanta Public Schools superintendent talks about balancing act of returning kids to classrooms

Dr. Lisa Herring spoke to 11Alive's Jennifer Bellamy on Tuesday.

ATLANTA — When some Atlanta Public Schools students begin returning to in-person classes later this month, one thing district superintendent Dr. Lisa Herring wants parents to keep in mind is that it won't necessarily be like everything is back to normal.

Parents have until the end of this week to declare whether they want their students (for now, only pre-K through 5th grade and special education students will be considered, but the district is asking all parents to declare their wishes) to return as part of Phase II of the district's reopening plan.

Some parents have become increasingly vocal about their wish to see their kids return to "normal" school, but what Dr. Herring told 11Alive's Jennifer Bellamy on Tuesday is that "it's not the same experience" they're accustomed to. 

RELATED: Atlanta Public Schools students to begin returning to in-person learning

Even with COVID-19 cases generally declining in Georgia and around Atlanta, the realities of the ongoing pandemic mean even the physical classroom will have its limitations, Herring said.

"We want parents to think carefully, because if they choose face-to-face, it's not the same experience as the past - it is very controlled, it has to be highly managed, and there are a lot of things that we've done in the past that we think we would step into, that we simply cannot," she said.

APS FAQs about reopening

As the school system listens to the many voices involved in the process, parents and teachers and others, Herring said, "We're just very careful around decision-making and ushering in what we trust and believe are the best practices."

"There are voices and there are members of our community who are not necessarily on the same side, but we recognize it does not do us well to be divided," the superintendent said. "We acknowledge that there are parents and families that have requested face-to-face now, immediately, full-time, no hybrid. And then there are those who are not a fan of hybrid, and there are those who have said, 'can we please remain virtual for as long as possible?' We take all of that into consideration."

She said there was no "perfect end result" that could make everyone happy, living under the reality of a pandemic - until it ends. 

"It's not as simple as one plus one equals two," Herring explained. "But we are taking in the feedback, we are listening to experts, we interface with districts who've done it already - districts similar to us - to gauge best practices."

Herring said she also recognized that the virtual learning system has not been able to accommodate all students, with growing concerns about disadvantaged students who may simply be left behind.

She said coordinating with the district's counselors and social workers has been "very intentional" to "be able to track and reach out to families where students have been absent."

"Whereas we're proud of what our log-in rate has looked like, we also know where students have simply not shown up," she said. "And I also have to acknowledge our principals and teachers who know who those students are, and we've done extensive outreach. COVID makes it a challenge to simply show up at the door, but we have had schools where incentives have been provided, particularly at the secondary level, so we can invite and keep our students connected."

Teachers, too, and other educational staff who are concerned about returning to in-person classes will continue to be accommodated through teleworking, Herring said.

"If there's anyone with a compromised situation in terms of their health or even in their caregiving, they have the opportunity to apply for telework," she said, adding they would not be challenged or penalized.

For now, she's optimistic this first step toward reopening will go some way to bridge the gap between the best education environment possible and the best education environment life COVID-19 allows.

"There are so many moving parts for readiness with the pandemic, whether it's safety oo PPE or social distancing or sanitizing, that’s also tied to human capital, our teachers, our principals, our staff, our bus drivers, etc. all factors of a complex consideration," she said. "Our core business is teaching and learning, and the way we've tried our best figure out how to navigate (reopening)."