Some Georgia school districts are delaying the return to the physical classroom, while others are not. Both scenarios leave some families unhappy. Drazen Zigic/Getty Images
Once again, Georgia students are headed back to school facing a sharp peak in COVID-19 cases.
The new year started with a spike in reports concentrated mostly in the metro Atlanta region — nearly 19,000 cases were reported statewide on New Year’s Day, smashing Georgia’s previous record of just over 10,000 cases on Jan. 8, 2021.
Telecom engineer and Columbia County mom C.J. Bridges said her family tried to do what they could to avoid the post-holiday spike in cases. She helps care for high-risk family members and has become used to avoiding public interactions as much as possible, but like much of the state, her family was touched by COVID.
“We did not have family gatherings for the holidays,” she said. “Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years were spent within our own household. However, right after Christmas, over 12 of my family members contracted COVID. One of them, unvaccinated, is currently hospitalized.”
So, when it came time to send her second-grade son back to class, she was nervous. The family had difficulty scheduling an initial vaccination appointment because of a short supply, so he has only received his first dose so far.
“He has been masking in school, but he tells me every day how many people do not have masks and do not wash their hands on a regular basis,” Bridges said. “I trust the school to do the best they can, but it is extremely difficult to control other people and their handling of the situation.”
Bridges said her son’s first day back on Tuesday went well, and she was happy to hear more students seemed to be masking up the first day.
But she remains concerned over the district’s quarantine policies and lack of a local virtual school option.
“I understand that the school districts are doing their best and it seems like COVID is everywhere right now, but it really feels like I’m being forced into a situation with no choices,” she said. “It’s scary.”
For students like Elsa Schilling, who attends Cobb County’s Wheeler High School magnet program, it’s hard not to notice the effects of COVID in the classroom.
“In some of my classes more than others, there were definitely a lot of like unexplained absences, and the teachers wouldn’t really call attention to it,” she said. “You know, we just knew that they were out because of COVID, or because they had exposure.”
“Teachers will often complain that it’ll be hard to teach with a lot of people absent, and everybody’s worried,” she added. “And I know I get a little bit nervous every time a teacher or a fellow student takes off their mask, even just for a few seconds to like, take a drink of water. I just feel sort of nervous and unsafe.”
Unlike the previous wave, in which minors in the state saw cases at rates similar to adults, the current wave is led by Georgians between 30 and 59 years old, according to state Department of Public Health data.
Children who catch COVID-19 generally only experience mild symptoms and recover quickly, but in some cases, they can become seriously ill, and they can spread the virus to more vulnerable adults.
Many Georgia school districts, especially in metro Atlanta, including Atlanta Public Schools, DeKalb County and Clayton County, have delayed in-person back-to-school, opting to start the semester virtually, with plans to reopen classrooms Jan. 10.
Speaking on CNN Tuesday, Clayton County Superintendent Morcease Beasley said his district is doing so in the hopes of reducing the spread from holiday cases.
“This week, our teachers and employees are working virtually, we are testing all employees to ensure that, of course, when students return face-to-face on Monday, Jan. 10, that we have, I would hope, the best situation possible relative to safety,” he said.
“Part of our effort is to ensure that we do not contribute to the rise in cases in our county in this area, so we thought it best to provide all employees an opportunity to test, get those negative tests,” he said. “Of course, those who test positive would have to quarantine, which allows us to plan more effectively for when students return face-to-face on Jan. 10.”
School closures have become a cultural wedge issue in the age of pandemic politics as working parents struggle to balance their jobs with caring for online-studying kids.
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Citing research linking virtual schooling with reduced learning, several Republican candidates for higher office have called on the metro Atlanta districts to ditch the virtual plans and open their doors immediately.
“These are decisions based on hysteria, not evidence,” said Gainesville Republican Sen. Butch Miller, who is running for lieutenant governor, in a statement. “We should do what’s right for those most vulnerable to the virus by keeping virtual learning as an option, but doing what’s right for the vast majority of Georgia families is in-person learning!”
Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue laid the blame on the man whose job he is hoping to take, Gov. Brian Kemp.
“Unfortunately, Brian Kemp continues to fail us by caving to liberal administrators in Atlanta. As Governor, I would issue an Executive Order to put our kids back in the classroom,” Perdue said. “These administrators have been given free rein for far too long – it’s time to put parents back in charge.”
Such an executive order would likely trigger a legal challenge. State law generally grants control to local school boards to make their own rules. Kemp has signaled his support for keeping classrooms open but has deferred to local leaders to decide.
Changes to protocol
On Wednesday, the Georgia Department of Public Health released an administrative order allowing local districts to develop their own quarantine requirements for asymptomatic people exposed to the virus, in cases where the exposure happened in a school setting.
The department recommends but does not require that schools that create different quarantine protocols require “quarantined persons remaining in the school setting wear a well-fitting mask for 10 days after exposure.”
The change is likely to make parents more confused about what to do if their child was near a friend, classmate or family member who later contracted COVID-19, said Dr. Amber Schmidtke, a microbiologist who studies the spread of COVID-19 in Georgia.
“This is less of a public health issue and more of a labor issue,” Schmidtke said. “DPH is giving them the green light to do whatever they need to do to maintain a workforce. The problem when things are as vague as they are here is that school districts could do a lot of unsafe things in the name of in-person learning including requiring people to come back to work while positive and/or actively sick or punishing them/firing them for failure to do so. It seems to me that there is a shift to treating this like influenza – they didn’t typically notify classmates or do contact tracing for influenza prior to the pandemic. I’m not sure it’s wise to do this right now while case rates are the highest they’ve ever been and hospitals are overwhelmed though.”
In a Jan. 6 letter to district leaders, Gov. Brian Kemp and Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey said they are continuing to seek methods to continue safe, in-person learning.
“Like you, our chief goal is to keep our kids in the classroom with minimal disruptions to their education, and we will continue to support you, your faculty, your students, and your parents in carrying out this mission,” the letter reads.
At least one school district is already implementing the new guidelines. In a Thursday email to parents, the Cobb County School district announced changes in line with the new protocols as well as suspending contact tracing. Speaking at a board of education meeting, Superintendent Chris Ragsdale said the guidance “will greatly assist us in maintaining all our classrooms being open,” according to East Cobb News.
Cobb is one of several large metro districts sticking with their scheduled return to in-person learning, along with others including Gwinnett and Cherokee. Cherokee students returned on Tuesday, Cobb students on Wednesday and Gwinnett students came back Thursday.
Kids returning to the classroom is a relief to some working parents, but not for all.
Elsa’s mother, Silke Schilling, said she’s grateful her children are old enough to be vaccinated and wear masks and she’s happy with their teachers and administrators, but she wishes the school board would be more transparent and give the impression of taking COVID-19 more seriously.
“It’s absolutely the worst feeling in the world not to trust my school system, which before COVID, I thought they were excellent, and I have never had a complaint of wonderful teachers, wonderful administrators, but to not be able to trust the superintendent, it’s so disturbing and depressing that it has me thinking about moving out of Cobb County,” she said.
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