On July 1, 2020, Lisa Herring Ed.D. was sworn in as the new superintendent for Atlanta Public Schools. Now, 54 days later, the Macon, Georgia native is preparing to launch her first school year, all virtually — in the middle of a pandemic.
Atlanta Public Schools is the state’s six largest school district and serves an active enrollment of just under 55,000 students annually across 103 school sites, including 50 elementary schools, 15 middle schools, 21 high schools, four single-gender academies, and 13 charter schools. The school system also supports two alternative schools for middle and/or high school students, two community schools, and an adult learning center.
The district is governed by the Atlanta Board of Education, composed of nine elected school board members, representing six geographical districts and three “at-large” districts. However, the day-to-day administration of the school district is primarily Herring’s responsibility, who was appointed by the board after a nationwide search to replace her predecessor Meria Carstarphen.
Last September, the board announced its decision not to renew Carstarphen’s contract when it expired on June 30.
“Because a majority of the Board does not support an extension, and no new contract is being offered, there is no action for the Board to take,” the school board said in a statement. “The Board acknowledges there will be some disagreement related to this decision, but we believe it is important for the good of the entire system to move forward now.”
The board launched a nationwide search for Carstarphen’s replacement in October. Herring, who was serving as superintendent for Birmingham City Schools, emerged as the sole finalist in mid-April. In accordance with state law, the board hired Herring 14 days later.
“I am very honored to have been chosen by the board and to have the full vote of confidence around being able to leverage this work,” Herring said. “(I) could not have planned that we would be doing it during a global pandemic.
“All of us experienced the disruption of our delivery model for instruction. And when I say all of us, the world — right? Not just the city of Atlanta,” she continued. “I was sitting in another city and state, but … by the end of March and into April, all of us were sheltering in place. And we were trying to navigate an environment that we’ve not lived in before.”
This new environment and the variety of challenges it poses has informed Herring’s recommendation to the board for adopting virtual learning for the first nine weeks of school. Herring insisted that her decision was based on consulting with the area’s public health community and what the data has said about the potential spread of the disease.
“One of the most critical has been the public health data. And the science of that data has been clear,” Herring explained. “We are in ‘high spread, ‘or what we call ‘substantial spread’ — meaning that we should not only be sheltering in place, but our practices should be tied to intentional and extreme social distancing.
“You know, the wearing of our masks at all times, and how we clean and sanitize ourselves and our environment based on the guiding documents that we received from public health officials from individuals in the health field doctors, physicians, medical university leaders, epidemiologists, and infectious disease specialists,” she continued. “And, when I say those names, I don’t just randomly lift them. I have had conversations with all of them and had them as we were trying to make the most responsible decision.
“Given that we were in ‘substantial spread,’ the most ideal scenario, I believe, and understand from the data and from their recommendations, was a virtual learning environment so that we could protect the health and wellness of the children that we serve and the staff who serves them,” she said. “That’s how we landed on virtual.”
Essentially, Herring and her team want to avoid any potential outbreaks like those that have rocked schools in Paulding, Cherokee, and Gwinnett counties.
As of Tuesday, more than 2,200 students out of Cherokee County’s 31,000 student population who participated in in-person instruction are now in quarantine.
As many as 27 students and staff have tested positive in Paulding County schools, where a viral photo of a crowded hallway at the school district’s high school gained nationwide attention.
“That’s what we were seeking and hoping and desiring to avoid,” Herring said. “I respect whatever leadership style and decision, any individual like myself executes to make a very heavy and complex decision. Our goal was to not be in a space where that would be our reality, and it was grounded and we are still in the city of Atlanta.”
Herring admitted that she would be open to considering options that could include some in-person instruction.
“When we announced (virtual learning) on July 13, we’ve been pretty consistent in that position since and this is literally a day short of a month later. And we still maintain that now,” she said. “The opportunities will exist to consider a hybrid or face-to-face, but not without first considering what level of community spread exists.”
Opening the school year in a completely virtual scenario poses a unique set of challenges, Herring admitted. Yet, she highlighted a number of accommodations the district has been making to mitigate potential issues they might have to overcome.
“We’re making devices available, because we know that that does not necessarily exist in all households and in Atlanta public schools, for any child or household that needs a device, we have one available for them,” said Herring, specifically addressing technology setbacks families may be facing. “We’ve been taking inventory and serving the community, and we have a sense of those numbers right now that are somewhere between 9,000 to 10,000. We have the capacity to cover for that.
“In addition, we’ve made hotspots available for any individual student that needs it as well,” she continued. “And from the families that we’ve received responses from, a good bit have household Wi-Fi, but there’s still a good percentage almost close to 20 percent that don’t and so we are prepared to make those devices available.”
Further, the district will also continue its meal program.
“We started this week with our meal delivery model, where we provide five breakfasts and five lunch meals every Monday, and we distribute that out to families this week, and this upcoming week, we’ve done it across the city if you’re needing it in specific locations,” Herring said. “Starting Aug. 24, we’ll continue that model — 10 meals — five breakfast and five lunch meals per child. Families will just have to go online and order their meals a week in advance. So we’ve tried to cover a lot in that space.”
Among these accommodations, APS has also launched what it has billed a one-stop-shop for reopening, where families can ask many or most of the questions around APS’s reopening strategy in one central website. The site features FAQ and other directory-style information that parents can use to be informed about how the district is navigating its reopening processes.
“Parents have asked many questions throughout this process,” Herring said. “And one of the things I’ve asked the team to be thoughtful about is the ability to have maybe even a one-stop-shop or one-place link where they can get all of the information — whatever you want to know, information is just a click away.
“And that was simply the thought behind it,” she added. “We realize that now more than ever, engagement is exceptionally critical and we want it to be able to make that an access point for parents.”
Ultimately, Herring said she wants parents and families to feel comfortable that not only is she well suited for her role but that the district itself is well-positioned to experience even greater success under her vision.
“As an experienced leader, I am passionate about children. I am passionate about children and doing what is right for them, regardless of the circumstance,” Herring explained. “Whether that circumstance is grounded in poverty or privilege, in the field of public education, I believe I am called we are called to do right by them in that space of teaching and learning and also developing and cultivating a journey of success so that their future is wide open for whatever they feel called to do.
“As an experienced educator and leader, I want folks to know that I am committed to thinking about how to build the right culture in our organization, to empower the (students) and the adults who serve them so that we can do it well and in a spirit of excellence but also thinking with a service mindset, because I’m also a servant leader,” she added.
“Further, I value and celebrate innovation and creativity, and the space in which all of us can play a part in that together,” she continued. “And then, at the end of the day, I am this Georgia girl from Macon, Georgia, who has had the good fortune to serve in several cities of the South, many of them that are critically tied to what is a journey on civil rights and social justice, and I am honored to have had a journey that’s taken me to some unique places, but then to come back and be in the state that helped build me, so I feel very obligated to help continue to build it.”