School quarantines pop up across Georgia, Cherokee still hot spot

Cherokee County parents gathered Aug. 11 to show their support for the county school board's decision to offer face-to-face education despite rising COVID-19 cases. Later the same day, the county announced Etowah High School would temporarily close after potential exposures led to hundreds of student quarantines. Ellen Eldridge/ Georgia Public Broadcasting

A Cherokee County high school is going temporarily online after nearly 300 students and staff have been placed on two-week quarantine on the seventh day of the school year, Superintendent Brian Hightower announced Tuesday.

“We recognize this decision still may create hardships for Etowah High School families and is disappointing for students who want to be at school for in-person learning,” Hightower said in a statement. “As of this morning, the number of positive cases at the school had increased to a total of 14, with tests for another 15 students pending; and, as a result of the confirmed cases, 294 students and staff are under quarantine and, should the pending tests prove positive, that total would increase dramatically.”

Etowah High School came under a harsh national spotlight last week when it was one of two Cherokee County schools where seniors crowded in front of the school, sans masks, to pose for a class photo that later went viral. Cherokee schools students are not required to wear masks. As of Tuesday night, Cherokee schools reported more than 1,000 students and employees out for quarantine. About 42,000 students attend Cherokee County schools, and just over three-quarters of them started the year in-person.

Cherokee is one of a growing number of Georgia school districts to get off to a rocky start to the school year as officials try to use state public safety guidelines to restart classes. From metro Atlanta to Augusta to Savannah, school officials’ plans to resume in-person classes are becoming disrupted quickly by positive COVID-19 cases that send whole classrooms home for two weeks when a single infected person is identified.

Paulding County’s reopening of classrooms also attracted national attention after photos from inside North Paulding High School showed a crowded class hallway transition of mostly maskless students. The student who took the photo was suspended but later had her punishment reversed. A planned two-day closure of that school building is set to continue through Wednesday.

On Tuesday, a staff member at Effingham High School became at least the sixth positive case in the Savannah-area district, and all five Augusta-area Columbia County high schools have reported positive cases, according to local media reports. 

Cherokee school board meeting a preview of reopening tension

A July Cherokee County school board meeting foreshadowed the tension between a push to reopen in-person classes and a limited roll out of virtual learning. Some parents pushed for students to return to the schoolhouse without a mask requirement while teachers expressed worries about safety.

Etowah High School has about 2,400 students, 631 of whom enrolled in digital learning at the start of the year. About 17% of the in-person students were in quarantine as of Tuesday. All Etowah students will all be studying online starting Thursday and continuing through Aug. 31 at least.

“We ask for students and their parents to be patient, as they were in the spring, while our teachers spend Wednesday shifting to remote learning,” Hightower said. “We will deep clean the building on Wednesday.”

Some Etowah parents were unhappy with the announcement.

“I’m bummed because a lot of kids need face-to-face learning,” said Heather Payton, mother of two freshmen at Etowah. “Digital learning did not work for my kiddos last year, and I know so many people that echoed that same statement.”

Payton said her family has been happy with the way the district has been handling the situation so far. Reading about large numbers of quarantined students can be shocking, but most of the quarantined students have not tested positive, she said.

“Most kids aren’t sick or showing symptoms, they are quarantining out of an abundance of caution, following (state public health) protocols,” she added. “I’m not angry, the district is doing what they feel is best to keep kids safe. I just hate that they have to quarantine everyone that has been exposed, most of them won’t get sick or experience any symptoms.”

Her children, a son and a daughter, are handling the news well, but they are looking forward to going back to in-person class as soon as it is an option.

“They both have mixed emotions,” she said. “They are very thankful to be back in school, they missed their friends and they know they do better in school, but truthfully, my son was a little happy. He can stay up a little later and play video games or watch Netflix without me griping as much.”

Others were grateful for the decision to close.

Brandi Kavanagh McDonald’s daughter, a junior at Etowah, was champing at the bit to get back to in-person classes after a difficult end to the previous school year.

“She is in all AP and honors courses,” McDonald said. “Digital learning was challenging in the spring without face-to-face instruction from teachers. Communication between students and teachers was challenging at times, and of course, she missed the day-to-day social life with friends.”

She said she is hoping this temporary delay will give school leaders the extra time to plan for a safer face-to-face reopening.

For McDonald, that means figuring out how to get more kids in masks – she wouldn’t have a problem with a mandate if the district created one – as well as better implementation of social distancing and a plan for more cleaning, including during the school day.

It’s not an easy choice, McDonald said, but she plans on sending her daughter back whenever she gets the option.

‘I did not expect things to get this bad’

Emily Robinson, whose son is an Etowah senior, said the rising number of cases made her rethink her decision to send him back in-person. She’s glad in-person class also were available  online before a quarantine forced the issue.

“I did not expect things to get this bad, especially this quick, and I was feeling trapped with our choice,” she said. “We were hoping for a shutdown before a quarantine that radiated through the entire family.”

Robinson also has a daughter with special needs in preschool who receives 45 hours of therapy per week.

“If my son were to be quarantined, they would not be able to provide services to her because of his exposure,” she said. “In turn I would have to notify my work that I cannot come in because I would have to be home with my daughter. They would probably quarantine me anyway. The same with my husband.”

Robinson said the family was feeling nervous about the return to school after quarantines mounted during the first week of classes. Her son was eager to complete his senior year in person, but after going to classes, he has second thoughts.

Robinson said the family will think carefully about their options once in-person lessons start back up.

“We made a bad decision and I was starting to panic about how this was going to play out,” she said. “I will expect changes and nothing less than required masks.”

Many teachers are also concerned about reopening plans but are afraid to speak out because of threats of retaliation, said Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers.

“We do have many teachers who are concerned, especially teachers who have families of their own,” she said. “The majority of teachers won’t say anything. We’re glad there are some teachers that are speaking out.

“Children can be asymptomatic, but it can spread through children,” she said. “What would be the problem with shutting down for several months, period, so that we can get a grip on COVID-19?”

Ross Williams
Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.