DeVos Softens Position on Schools Reopening in Georgia Visit

CUMMING, Ga. (AP) -- U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has softened earlier comments that called for schools to reopen for in-person instruction for all, saying during a visit to a Georgia high school Tuesday that what she really wants to see is “100% learning.”

“I think perhaps there's been a little bit of a misunderstanding that going back to school meant 100% of the students had to be in-person 100% of the time,” DeVos said at Forsyth Central High School in suburban Atlanta. “No, the expectation is that there's 100% learning in a way that's going to work for each family and each student, and importantly, in each community and each school.”

DeVos and President Donald Trump have been pressuring school systems to open in person, a position that has prompted demonstrations and shouting matches at school board meetings in some places as school leaders have wrestled with their options. Trump at one point threatened to withhold federal funding for schools that do not bring their students back in the fall.

On July 7, DeVos criticized leaders of the mammoth Fairfax County system in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., for giving parents a choice of hybrid classes in person two days a week or learning remotely all the time.

“A choice of two days per week in the classroom is not a choice at all,” DeVos said in a call with governors, also saying schools must be “fully operational.”

Speaking at a news conference in South Carolina on July 21, DeVos said relief funding should be directed at families, not schools, so students could go elsewhere if their local school is “refusing to open.”

The 56,000-student Forsyth district is the largest school system in Georgia to have resumed full-time in person instruction for any student who wants it, with about 30% of parents instead choosing the district's option of all-virtual schooling. Georgia's largest district, 180,000-student Gwinnett County, will start teaching some grades in person Wednesday as part of a phased return plan.

The Forsyth district, serving Georgia's most affluent county, has reported 45 coronavirus infections so far among students and staff. At Forsyth Central High School, Principal Mitch Young said one employee and five students have reported infections, with more than 100 close contacts sent home to quarantine.

That's a less severe outbreak that in some other districts. The neighboring Cherokee County district suspended in-person classes at three of its six high schools until Aug. 31 after sending hundreds of students home into quarantine. In Mississippi, at least 720 schools across 74 of the state's 82 counties have reported infections.

On Tuesday, at 2,600-student Forsyth Central High School, DeVos heard from administrators, teachers and parents who support reopening. Superintendent Jeff Bearden told DeVos that in-person instruction is especially important for special education students, students learning English, or students from less affluent families.

“We cannot serve those students as well virtually as we can face-to-face,” Bearden said. “That's why we felt it was so important to give our families a choice, to give those students an opportunity to come back for face-to-face instruction.”

Not all parents feel that way, though. Missy Pounds, the mother of students in eighth, ninth and 10th grades, was among a small group of protesters outside Tuesday. Some protested DeVos' support of private and charter school funding, but Pounds said she's worried about her children's safety. Her three children are attending in person. The ninth- and 10th-grade students are enrolled in a high school that teaches specialized career courses that aren't available online. The eighth-grader returned in part to participate in drama classes.

“I'm as comfortable as I can be for right now,” said Pounds, who would have preferred a hybrid schedule of part-time in-person instruction. “I think the district let the clock run out and they didn't come up with actual, meaningful plans.”

“I'm not saying close the schools, but I think it will happen inevitably," Pounds said. "I think the dam will burst.”

The Forsyth district has also designated its teachers as “critical infrastructure workers," meaning teachers would be exempt from quarantine orders and could be ordered to return to class after being exposed to COVID-19. The district has retained the position despite a lawyer for Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp telling another district that schools can't do so unless state officials permission.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security earlier this month advised states to designate teachers as critical infrastructure workers, but left the decision to them. Tennessee has given its school districts permission, and South Carolina has signaled it may do so. In a survey this month, 139 Georgia superintendents favored the move, while 12 opposed it.