After two months of COVID-19 isolation & self-distancing, we need – more than ever – 24 hours to Unite.us all

For nearly two months, we in Atlanta Public Schools have asked our community for patience and understanding as we work hard to get virtual learning right and continue to support our families. It has been a challenging, daunting, and grueling process for all of us as we have had to embark on a whole new world of education and societal norms … apart through social distancing.

The uncertainty has been, at times, terrifying… because something is happening that we don’t understand and is beyond our control. But it’s something that demands the best of us. Something that reminds us that we need each other.

As someone who has been in the social emotional learning space (SEL) for more than 10 years and leading a district that has made SEL a priority for the last six, I have learned that we have to learn to take a moment every now and then. That moment must be a pause for reflection and reconnection – a reminder that we are in this together.

During this time, I have regularly turned to one of our strongest partners – the Collaborative for Academic and Social Emotional Learning (CASEL) and its chair, Tim Shriver – because they helped us rebuild our culture in APS. Tim and I, along with others, have founded this new effort – one designed to reach out across the world to help us support each other in this unprecedented time.

It’s the Call to Unite.

Starting at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 1, the Call to Unite will launch a 24-hour global livestream event that invites people around the world to celebrate hope for a new future together. This livestream event is a global opportunity to stand in solidarity with those experiencing pain, fear, loneliness, and grief – and offer hope and support as we build a new future together.

Throughout the event, global leaders — from former presidents to Oprah to Julia Roberts to  Common to Deepak Chopra — will join participants from around the world in sharing practices, faith, songs, reflections, and more to help people turn the pain of this moment into possibility for tomorrow.

You are welcome to join us if you would like to support the effort by visiting the website unite.us.

This is also an opportune moment to remind our community of the many ways Atlanta Public Schools has stepped up to support our students, their families, and our community.

We continue to maintain an extensive food distribution network that provides more than 160,000 meals each week. Full up-to-date details are available at www.atlantapublicschools.us/fooddistribution

Our Social Emotional Learning, Counseling, and Social Work Departments provide daily SEL skill-building activities to students, check-ins with students and families, virtual lessons and webinars, resources for Wellness and Emotion Regulation, and connect families with community agencies.

The district through the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provides several employee resources to help them and their families maintain physical, financial, and emotional well-being during this challenging and unpredictable time. In addition, our SEL department hosts Wellness Wednesdays and SELf-care Fridays at 1:30 p.m. weekly for all staff.

We are sending every APS family a survey card to help us determine their needs and identify community partners who can help. Look for it over the next week. We need our families to take a moment to complete the survey and send it back to us as soon as possible. There is a QR code on the survey you can use to take the survey online or simply drop the completed card in the mail. (Please note: This survey was produced before the COVID-19 crisis and can no longer be returned to your school. Please complete the survey online or return the prepaid card by mail. We will share the information collected with our generous partners who match our community’s needs.)

And in partnership with the Whitefoord Foundation, the Whitefoord Health Clinics remain a valuable resource to our families for most routine and urgent health needs, including COVID-19 testing. Telehealth appointments are available and some visits such as immunizations or strep throat tests, can be done while you wait in your car. Call their hotline number, (470) 427-2634 ext. 123, or visit them online at https://www.whitefoord.org/covid19.

REMEMBER: Starting at 8 p.m., Friday, May 1, I hope you’ll join me and an amazing group of the world’s master teachers, influencers, leaders, entertainers, and more for the Call to Unite’s 24-hour global stream-a-thon on how we can each and all answer the call. 

Sign up to join us at: https://unite.us  You’re invited to watch, to share, to heal, to cry, to applaud, to dance, to unite (and yes, to be silent too!). 

I can’t wait! #answerthecall

For more coverage of the Call to Unite, see these links below:

https://apnews.com/fa6a7f9f6e0621256cf5269662d3cc84

https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/27/entertainment/the-call-to-unite-livestream/index.html

https://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/george-w-bush-oprah-winfrey-julia-roberts-call-to-unite-livestream-event

http://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/the-call-to-unite-livestream-990679/

Open Letter to the Seniors of the Class Of 2020 for Atlanta Public Schools

To my beloved APS Class of 2020 –

Amid all of the chaos and crazy surrounding what has become a global pandemic, I’ve been thinking about you, every single one of you, as our district works to maintain teaching and learning and some semblance of a normal school year even as our school buildings remain closed.

With you prematurely heading your separate ways, I’ve been reflecting on the power the students of the Class of 2020. You were starting seventh grade when I first met you — little middle schoolers that have now grown up into beautiful and compelling young men and women. It is you who give me the heart and the passion to do this work. You are indeed #WorthTheWait.

You have led movements garnering national attention, such as silent and respectful protests against gun violence your sophomore year as well as the Global Climate Initiative that originated from North Atlanta by Cole Bickerstaff and Emily D’Achiardi. As the COVID-19 pandemic forced our schools to close for teleschooling, many of you made your opinions and ideas known such as Chris Whitaker of Douglass High, whose online petition generated more than 6,000 signatures and supported the right position to push for closure for the health and safety of our students and staff. Thank you for your leadership!

You have led teams to championships, like Zhaniya Moreland, Ashley Mckee, and Ikenya King, captains of the Frederick Douglass Lady Astros basketball team for two years running, and the Grady Jester debate team, notching its 11th straight state championship. 

You have made strides in the arts with Jackson students forming an International Thespian Troupe and showing leadership at a state level, Therrell students with art featured at the High Museum, and Carver High serving as the backdrop for an upcoming movie about Aretha Franklin. Oh, and Washington, with its awesome dance troupe a feature of this year’s State of the District, is just “Bad to the Bone.”

You have LIVED our mission as shown by Atlanta Classical Academy, BEST Academy, and Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy, where all students are not only on course to graduate but ALL have been accepted to college. We see it, too, at Forrest Hill Academy and Crim where students were part of the inaugural class of students for Project Hope to get more students than ever to graduate.

You have put yourself on a pace to earn more scholarships than ever, including students at Charles Drew, Mays, and South Atlanta who snagged prestigious 5 Strong Scholarships. Congratulations to Turan Beadles, Destiny Crawford, Jamilah El-Amin, Trinity Franklin, Sherodon Jenkins, Daysha Rainwater, Nicholas Smith, Jasmyn Thrash, Brionne Triplett, and Toni White.

You have become models for community service as exhibited by students at KIPP Atlanta Collegiate, with one of their own – Ari Hawkins – named among Atlanta Intown’s “20 Under 20.”

And just as you have worked together to emerge from numerous struggles over your 13 years of schooling, you will emerge from this pandemic.

Given how much you’ve achieved together, I know it may feel stressful and disorienting to have to face this latest challenge apart from each other. Even as you recognize the power of facing challenges together, you’re told to face this particular one in isolation … and at a distance. So it’s lonely. It’s scary. But, it’s not insurmountable.

I’ve come to realize in my role as superintendent that, while the immediate challenge of this virus does require us to be apart for a time, that’s not the only challenge we’re facing. The challenge before us is not just to make it through these next few weeks and months. We will. What I see as the greatest challenge—and opportunity—before us is rebuilding the world on the other side of this and making it kinder, fairer, more just, and much better than it was before. The disparities and inequities in our communities have always existed. However, they are exacerbated due to the virus and that is the world you will lead us through. We need you to remember that. I believe you are strong enough to persevere and rebuild our communities for the better.

What gives me hope in these challenging times is that you—the leaders, learners, and strivers I have had the pleasure to watch grow over the past six years—will be responsible for building and shaping that world. And you will do it together.

As you move through the rest of your life, every job you take, every interaction you have, every choice you make will play a part in shaping the world. So these next few weeks provide opportune moments for you to think – uninterrupted by the usual school day-to-day routines – about who you are, what you want, what you want your world to be, and what you’re going to do to build that world. Take that time, and do something great with it.

Rest assured that, as you do that, I am committed to do everything I can to make your senior year special and uniquely yours. We asked for graduation ideas, and more than 1,650 of you – including Chy’onna Clayton, Traniece Franklin, Shawn Gillespy, Kumari Hendricks, and Jalin Roscoe – made your #WorthTheWait opinions (first tweeted by Destiny Crawford of Mays!) overwhelmingly clear. Therefore, we will celebrate virtually from May 18 through 22, but we will bring all of the pomp and circumstance with traditional ceremonies in the summer or fall or during the first safe opportunity because this class is, indeed, #WorthTheWait.

We will consider all of the options and your concerns at a dedicated virtual Town Hall for the graduating class of 2020 at 4 p.m., Thursday, April 30, from my Instagram account @meriacarstarphen. I look forward to the conversation!

Until then, I want to leave you with one final thought: Strength comes from struggle, and the strongest are those forged in the fight. You all have already developed and demonstrated so much strength, as I’ve witnessed in our conversations, projects, football practices, water polo games, and everything else we’ve done together. 

You are already strong, and by the virtue of being the class forced to brave a pandemic through to graduation, you will become the strongest, most resilient, most prepared students of your generation. Take that strength forward, persevere, and continue making us proud.

Much love and air hugs!

Dr. C.

APS Unveils Proposal for Virtual, Traditional Ceremonies for 2020 Grad Nation #WorthTheWait

With respect to social gathering restrictions in Georgia due to COVID-19, Atlanta Public Schools plans to hold virtual graduation celebrations for the Class of 2020 in May, delaying traditional ceremonies until the summer or a later safe date that adheres to Georgia Department of Health guidance. The district reached this decision based on input from graduating seniors across all 14 high schools.

Of the more than 1,650 APS seniors surveyed, an overwhelming percentage expressed interest for a delayed open-air (78%) or fall (71%) ceremony while fewer did so for a virtual ceremony from home (19%) or the Starlight Drive-In (27%) in May. Seniors originated #WorthTheWait, emphasizing their desires to walk on stage in their caps and gowns, even if delayed.

As part of the proposal, APS will:

  • Conduct a virtual celebration during the regular graduation season between May 18 and 22 and plan for a traditional graduation program for each school when State and Department of Health guidelines allow.
  • Work with schools to coordinate creative efforts for families to engage in at their homes and with their loved ones before and during the ceremony.
  • Coordinate diploma delivery in May through mail or some other safe distribution method.

For the traditional ceremonies, APS is considering dates in late July using Lakewood and Grady stadiums as possible venues. If ceremonies must be delayed further, the district is considering other venues or ticketed ceremonies at each school, possibly scheduling them during the Thanksgiving or winter breaks to maximize attendance of graduates and their families.

It is important to note that the traditional, in-person ceremonies will only take place as planned when all state of emergency declarations have been lifted by both the State of Georgia and the City of Atlanta, and that the Georgia Department of Health has deemed it safe for mass gatherings.

If for any reason, the health and safety of our students, families, and guests may be at risk, the district will put the ceremonies on hold until they can be conducted safely.

Atlanta Public Schools honors and cherishes graduation as an essential rite of passage, especially after the Class of 2020 faced the loss of proms and other end-of-the-year events. Conducting both a virtual and delayed option allows us to support the traditional graduation season for our seniors while honoring the wishes of the class to come together so they can experience walking across the stage with their peers and before their loved ones. 

We want to congratulate the Class of 2020 for making it through 13 years of school and weeks of a global pandemic! We agree they are #WorthTheWait, so we pledge to them that we will work hard to celebrate them and ensure them of the pomp and circumstance they deserve.

APS closes for in-person instruction for remainder of year

UPDATE: April 13, 2020: As part of APS’ commitment to the safety of students and employees, we sent letters to families and staff providing updates on the district’s response to COVID-19. The letter to families is available on our Coronavirus Update page here. The Spanish version is here.

UPDATE: April 3, 2020Updated FAQ document from Superintendent Town Hall. These questions and answers are based on major themes posed during the March 26 and April 3 APS District Town Hall events. If further questions exist, please review the other information on this page or reach out to us by submitting a question on Let’s Talk. https://bit.ly/3bMguoP

UPDATE: April 2, 2020Atlanta Public Schools to hold Virtual Town Hall at noon, Friday, April 3, on Facebook Live. View the recording at http://www.facebook.com/AtlantaPublicSchools

POSTED: April 1, 2020 – Governor Brian Kemp announced today that all K-12 schools in Georgia will remain closed for in-person instruction for the remainder of this school year. In keeping with this order, Atlanta Public Schools (APS) will remain closed for the remainder of this school year for in-person instruction. Our students and staff will continue teleschooling and teleworking for the remainder of the school year.

We will work on the impact of this decision, including exploring alternative scenarios to celebrate our 2020 graduates, and to address the loss of instructional learning time. APS will remain in contact with our families and staff as we work through solutions that address these concerns. 

As soon as possible, the District will hold a virtual town hall to translate what this means for APS. Thank you for your patience as we work together to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

APS permenecerá cerrado para la instrucción en persona por el resto del año escolar, por orden del gobernador Kemp. Haga clic aquí para leer más.

APS Joins Forces with Comcast to Get Kids Connected

One of the most difficult – but necessary – decisions I have ever made as an urban schools superintendent was to close Atlanta Public Schools for teleschooling and teleworking. Necessary … to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Difficult … a potential disconnect between schools and our students.

Immediately, we entered a whole new world of education, a virtual one that required technology from computers to hotspots to access to the Internet. Unfortunately, in Atlanta – the most income disparate city in America – we have thousands of families who cannot afford to even get online at home.

This school year, APS distributed more than 7,500 iPads to 1st and 2nd graders as part of the Tablet2Read program and more than 8,000 laptops to students in grades 6-8. That made APS almost “1-to-1” at those grade levels. After closure of schools in response to COVID-19, the district distributed nearly an additional 9,000 Chromebooks to students.

But many of these students were not “connected.” No matter how many devices they might have at home, they couldn’t receive or turn in assignments if they did not have Internet access.

We put out a huge call. We needed more help from partners.

Today, I can proudly say that Comcast responded to our call in a great and generous way!

To bridge the digital divide for the city’s most vulnerable families, we joined with Comcast’s Internet Essentials program to provide low-cost, high-speed Internet and computers. The “Get Our Kids Connected” campaign is also an opportunity for everyone – from corporate partners to individuals – to make a grand impact in the lives of some of our most promising APS scholars.

Here are the deets:

For $300, contributors can give the gift of connectivity, which will provide students with a laptop and an Internet connection for 12 months. APS has identified a pilot group of 1,000 students with an immediate need, which sets the fundraising goal at $300,000. 

Those interested in donating can do so by visiting www.atlantapublicschools.us/getourkidsconnected.

Even before we launched, we had an angel in our midst as Trinity HealthShare, a non-profit health care sharing ministry, became our first major donor with a $50,000 contribution to help kick start this campaign, followed by Atlanta Tech Village with a $10,000 contribution.

Trinity HealthShare CEO William “Rip” Thead told us that he and his group view the children of APS as “our children.” He said: “When we became aware of the opportunity to provide laptops directly to students who normally would go without, we wanted to take immediate action. This $50,000 donation is what we believe will be a jump start for reducing the technology gap for our children in the City of Atlanta.”

Our team worked hard with Comcast, and I am proud to say their work will not only help Atlanta’s children but those in other districts across the country as Comcast plans to expand the program with other school district partners in the future. We are facing extremely dark and difficult times. Today, I feel blessed and see a ray of hope because of this.

APS notified of first confirmed case of COVID-19 in district

Fulton County Board of Health investigation finds no exposure to students and no close contact with other APS staff.

The Fulton County Board of Health (BOH) notified Atlanta Public Schools (APS) of its first confirmed case of COVID-19 today.

However, in this case, there is no exposure to students, and for staff there was no close contact with this employee based on an investigation by the Board of Health. The Board of Health is communicating directly with the employee and has directed the employee to self-quarantine.

Based on their determination, public health officials do not have any other students or employees to interview at this time. Per guidance from health officials, the identity of the employee must be kept confidential, but we can disclose that the employee did work at North Atlanta High School.

Health officials explained that the biggest public health intervention that Atlanta Public Schools could have done has already been done —all schools in Atlanta Public Schools are closed. They did advise that all North Atlanta High School students and staff members should continue to self-monitor at home and remain vigilant in exercising the following preventative measures to stop the spread of COVID-19:

  • Practice social distancing by avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (i.e., no close contact with individuals, maintain a distance of more than 6 feet, and if within 6 feet, less than 10 minutes for any interaction) from others when possible.
  • Avoid crowded places where close contact with others may occur, such as shopping centers, movie theaters, and stadiums.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • Please seek medical attention if you or a family member feels ill or is exhibiting flu-like symptoms.

While APS is closed for teleschooling and teleworking all schools and buses in APS are being thoroughly cleaned and sanitized, following CDC guidelines for COVID-19 prevention, including cleaning and disinfecting high touch areas such as desks, hard surfaces, light switches, doorknobs, and handrails based on scientific research about COVID-19. In addition, our cleaning crews are using cleaning products that are on the Environmental Protection Agency’s approved list for combatting COVID 19.

Your continued safety and well-being is important to APS. As we work through the impacts of COVID-19 in our community, we are committed to providing you with accurate, timely and transparent information as we receive it. Continue to stay up-to-date on the District’s response to COVID-19 by visiting https://www.atlantapublicschools.us/coronavirus.

I’m thinking of all of you during this difficult time and am doing everything we can to keep you safe and informed. Please be safe and take care of yourself and your families.

Get Counted! Census 2020 provides critical data for school funding

“Shape your future. START HERE.” The 2020 Census, the official count of every person living in the United States and its territories, launches this month. In the coming weeks, we will see thousands of announcements, flyers, news reports and social media postings in the coming weeks with the new tagline and the importance of getting counted.

What I cannot stress enough is the IMPORTANCE of an accurate count for our schools. The Census is much more than a U.S. population count every decade; it is a massive data collection that provides critical information to ensure our schools – as one beneficiary – get the most funding and support possible from state and federal sources. It only serves us better knowing how many people live in our city, state and nation.

For example, data collected in the 2020 Census will inform the distribution of more than $675 billion in federal funds for more than 100 programs, including school lunches and education, to states and communities each year.

Results of the census impact funding for things like: schools and education, health care facilities, housing assistance, public transportation, child and adult food assistance programs, assistance for people transitioning out of homelessness, career and technical education grants, and Medicare Part B.

Businesses, community leaders, and local governments use census data to create jobs, ensure public safety preparedness, and support community initiatives.

The count of our kids is especially important. The 2020 Census helps determine which areas qualify for the critical resources that children and families depend on for the next 10 years — basically an entire childhood!

But consider this: An estimated 5 percent of kids under the age of five were missed in the 2010 Census. At about 1 million babies and young children, that’s the largest undercount of any age group!!!

We must COUNT THE KIDS!

The Census – as an effort to count well over 300 million people – is a massive undertaking. And so Atlanta Public Schools is on board to help create awareness and assist in our small way in the count with targeted outreach to APS families and stakeholders.

Working with Georgia Voices for Children, we have participated in Public Service Announcements, which we will also air on WABE, WPBA and our social media channels. We have also prepared emails, posters, and articles to get the word out.

So here are some other critical instructions.

In mid-March, homes across the country will begin receiving invitations to complete the 2020 Census. By April 1, 2020, you will receive an invitation to participate in the 2020 Census. Once the invitation arrives, you should respond for your home in one of three ways: online, by phone, or by mail.

You should respond at the address where you are living or staying on Census Day — April 1, 2020.

The 2020 Census marks the first time you will be invited to respond online — even on your mobile device. You can respond by phone or mail — they’re secure, too — but going online is a great option, because it is:

  • Convenient: You can respond from anywhere, at any time, using a mobile phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop computer. You just need to be connected to the Internet.
  • Easy: When you respond online, the website will guide you through each question on the 2020 Census and provide more information if you need it.
  • Secure: All responses submitted online are encrypted to protect personal privacy. Once responses are received, they are no longer online.

How to respond online is as easy as 1-2-3:

  1. In March 2020, your household will receive an invitation in the mail to respond online.
  2. Visit 2020census.gov to access and complete the census questionnaire.
  3. You’re done!

Census takers will visit homes in April to conduct quality check interviews and to help collect responses. In May, they will follow up in person with homes that have not responded to the census.

All responses are confidential and protected by law. Your personal information can never be shared with law enforcement agencies or property managers, and it cannot be used against you in any way. If you have any questions, contact the Atlanta Regional Census Center at 470-889-6800.