ATLANTA, Ga. — Creating plans to address the evolving COVID-19 pandemic has required battle skills Mike Looney learned during his days in the military.

“As a retired Marine, I learned that sometimes the best laid plans don't work out in the battlefield,” the Fulton County Schools superintendent said. “Sometimes you have to make adjustments. And this is one of those times.”

Heading into August, Looney was optimistic the 2021-22 school year could begin as close to normal after a year and a-half of pandemic disruption.

“We truly believed that we had successfully managed the peak of the COVID curve,” Looney said at an Aug. 12 school board meeting. “In fact, I was somewhat defiant and resistant [even when] people started telling me otherwise.”

Over the summer, vaccination rates were going up, positive rates were going down and schools could open mask optional, he believed. Then the Delta variant appeared.

Just days before school opened in early August, Looney was forced to backtrack to mandating masks in areas with “high transmission” rates, and consider virtual, remote learning once again.

As with all things “COVID,” the decision created a firestorm of pros and cons in the community.

Looney said in his nearly two decades as a school superintendent he’s seen a lot of heated discussions in board rooms and from parents. But none to the level that decisions on plans for COVID have brought forth.

“I don't begrudge anybody for their passion, or their concern, because we all want [our] kids to be happy, to be healthy and be safe,” Looney said.

He noted the community is equally divided on plans for schools based on communication he has received. At one point Looney said he was receiving about 60 emails an hour. Comments on his Twitter feed had to be disabled for some posts because of the intensity of comments.

Looney asked the community to “take a deep breath” and come together to help lower the lower the level of COVID spread so schools can get back to normal.

“I am very optimistic this spike is short-lived, and that we can very soon in a couple of weeks go back to where we had hoped we would be at the first day of school,” Looney said.

Fulton County Schools to expand instruction options

He noted decisions are not made in isolation, but only after talking with every board member to gather their perspective and ideas for their communities.

But as in the military, leaders own their battle plans.

“The operations of the school district are my charge as the CEO,” Looney said. “And I have to protect the interest of all of our students, families and employees.”

Candy Waylock is an award winning education reporter who has covered all things education for Appen Media over the past 20 years. She is an Alpharetta resident.

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