For our 21st Century Plague project, we spoke with 17 Georgians about the toll of COVID-19. Below, Dr. Meria Carstarphen—superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools—describes her school system’s response to the virus and why minorities and the poor will be hit hardest by the crisis. (Carstarphen was interviewed on March 20.)
Right after Valentine’s day, one of my friends was going to Venice, Italy. While my friend was there, they shut down Carnival [due to coronavirus]. That was my reality check. I said to our team, “We need to prepare for the day when we have to shut down the district.” There were moments where I felt was pushing a wet noodle up a mountain. As things started escalating, we had to make decisions about staff travel, about kids and teams that had to go out of the state for sports. Should we be cancelling exchange programs? People were like, “You’re not really considering that?” I said, “We have to prepare a contingency plan that starts with the worst-case scenario.”
I tried to bring leaders together early. I remember reaching out to all the superintendents in the metro area. We had a process for emergency weather. I said, “It’s time we create a process for the coronavirus.”
The day when I said to my fellow superintendents that I’m considering closing the district even though we don’t have any cases—that was a bit of a shock. Even to myself. I work with children. So the idea that I would even put on the table this notion that they might not have a prom, they might not be able to play for the state championship, they might not be able to get closure in after 12 years of public school, that their moment gets snatched away from them? It’s sobering how your decision can change the direction of people’s lives.
I always believed we would be here at mitigation—not prevention, not containment. Mitigation was probably the only way we’d go given the spirit of our country, given we’re a democracy, given that people love their personal freedoms and their individual decision-making.
When the coronavirus closed Atlanta Public Schools, the district implemented a massive effort to continue offering free meals to its 52,416 students. Working with the Atlanta Community Food Bank, APS offers a bag of free groceries every Monday at four locations around town. The district hosts an additional giveaway on Tuesdays, and is offering meal service at 10 sites around town, including delivery of meals via the school bus system.
No one else is doing anything as comprehensive as we are when it comes to pushout of food. Our goal as of yesterday [March 19] was to be at 40,000 meals on any given day in a school district. We let everyone eat. As food supplies diminish or are late, and as staff continue to self-quarantine and find other challenges trying to come to work every day, we’ll have staffing shortages.
We have 110 routes that have multiple stops within a route to be able to do the biggest push of the food distribution. Any food that comes back, Goodr [a nonprofit that redirects surplus food back into communities that need it] takes all the extra meals and delivers to people’s doors. We also target specific apartment buildings, where maybe people can’t come out to the bus stop or don’t have a car or can’t walk to a school.
This is going to have a huge and disproportionate impact on black and brown and poor children. There’s no comprehensive strategy or support for them. When you’re in a city that has the label of being the most unequal city in America when it comes to income disparity, and you’re working with people who are already fragile and incredibly strained in the healthiest of economies, this is crushing. If you’re wealthy, you can still get the access to the things you need for your family. Our kids weren’t getting that at the outset. It took a pandemic to wake up some people to know that we have to support our marginalized brothers and sisters.
Someone asked, Why are you having a hard time getting people to come to work? I said, You can telework. These are low-paid workers, often with preexisting health conditions, often older. Even with a regular school year, they are struggling with daycare. Maybe they’re a grandmother who’s a bus driver raising three grandchildren. Some people really don’t understand what is happening for people in poverty.
For years we [in the United States] have not changed the way we do schooling. I go back to my high school 20 years later and it still looks like it did when I was in school. Now, in less than one week, the entire country is shifting on how we’re doing public education, when before it was such a battle to make some basic changes and adjustments from a policy level. In just a few days we’ve moved from a trial mode of innovation—adjusting to a couple of bad weather days—to digital learning at home with parents trying to support and the teacher is virtual.
Public schools have long been the canary in the coal mine. There used to be this theory that if you got a quality education and if you could graduate, it would be the great equalizer. You could break out of the cycle of violence and poverty and illiteracy because you have this education. But the data shows that in current times, an education alone is not enough. Whether it’s the water having lead in it, the violent environments, the pollution runoff—these were dramatically affecting whether kids could recover. An education isn’t enough anymore.
Right now, parents are getting an opportunity to spend time with their children, to love them, to talk to them, to engage with them, to reset some behaviors that, before, some parents said, I don’t have time to deal with that. Well, now you’re with your kids. Get to know them. Set some expectations about the relationship between the caregiver and the child. Spend some time learning about what your kid really knows and what they don’t know and come back prepared to support your schools. Come back prepared to have more patience and understanding about how much pressure educators are under to do the work that they are doing, which is far bigger than teaching and learning.
We’ve made schools responsible for everything. We are teachers, but we’re also nurses and police officers and caregivers. We bring food and jackets and we’re psychologists and healthcare providers. Schools have been burdened with so much from society that teachers have often said, We don’t get the time to do our core purpose, which is teaching. We spend more time figuring out how to get food to people, how to get them healthcare, how to provide transportation.
We could actually rebuild pre-K through 12 institutions to be focused on children and learning. It’s an opportunity I hope we don’t miss.
[The pandemic] will forever change us. The country, the world. How we rearrange the priorities of funding in government. But that only happens if we collaborate. It has raised to our communities how important leadership is, and how important it is that we come back from all of this with the hearts and smarts to be better as we serve the communities who are looking to us to help them, finally. The fragility of all of it weighs on my heart and my mind.
My worst fear is that the most vulnerable people—the people I serve—will be hit the hardest. That our leadership will never learn their lesson and that we come back from it all not being stronger but allowing the divides to stand.
Interview edited for length and clarity.