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Georgia Offers Lessons and Warnings in Return to In-Person Classes

Some of those schools in Cherokee and Paulding counties in Georgia had to close just days after opening due to outbreaks of COVID-19, portending possible trouble ahead as many of the state’s 1.8 million students return to classrooms.

(TNS) - When Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said the reopening of schools had gone “real well other than a couple of virtual photos,” he was referring to widely distributed pictures of students crowded together without masks, in some of the state’s earliest-opening schools.

 Despite Kemp’s sanguine assessment last Monday, some of those schools in Cherokee and Paulding counties had to close just days after opening due to outbreaks of COVID-19, portending possible trouble ahead as many of the state’s 1.8 million students return to classrooms. Georgia has become national news and other states that open later in the fall are watching with interest.
Another round of districts begins the school year Monday — including Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton in metro Atlanta, among the state’s largest. Most are starting online, but hope to move back into classrooms at some point, as parents rally for in-person schooling. Based on the early experiences of Paulding and Cherokee counties, experts say changes will have to be made.
While many teachers and some parents think it risky to expect business as usual during a pandemic, communities have so far supported the reopening decisions by school leaders in Cherokee and Paulding counties, where three high schools had to close within days of opening due to rapid spread of the coronavirus. (On Sunday Cherokee announced Creekview High School will also temporarily end in-person learning after 500 students were quarantined and 25 tested positive for COVID-19.) Forsyth County schools began with in-person and online instruction Thursday.
Experts have expressed concern about school safety protocols in communities with high infection rates. The quarantines at Etowah High, where mask-free seniors stood shoulder to shoulder for a group photo on the first day of school Aug. 3, underscored the risk of not mandating masks or implementing social distancing, according to Dr. Tina Q. Tan of Northwestern University.
“This really led to the outbreak and closure of that school,” the professor of pediatrics and pediatric infectious diseases said. “In that particular community, the rates of infection are actually quite high so it probably was not the best idea for that school to open,” she added.
Since March, when the pandemic reached Georgia, Cherokee County has had a regular place on the Georgia Emergency Management Agency’s list of counties “most impacted” by COVID-19.
State guidance has left it up to local school leaders to decide whether and how to reopen, and they have navigated between the advice of health experts, pressure from parents and political winds blowing from Washington.
Health experts, like the Harvard Global Health Institute, have proposed that schools reopen only if the county has fewer than 25 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people. An analysis last week by The New York Times using this and other data found that most school districts — including all but a handful in Georgia — should remain closed.
President Donald Trump has been pushing schools to fully reopen, threatening to withhold money from those that don’t. “All schools should be making plans to resume in-person classes as soon as possible,” he said Wednesday.
Trump has not been a fan of masks, an attitude that may have influenced many in Cherokee and Paulding, where school officials are not making students wear them and some community members believe it ought to be a choice.
Tiffany Robbins teaches seventh grade English in Cherokee and said some of her students “don’t believe” in COVID-19. The president of the Cherokee Education Association estimates that at least two-thirds of her students do not wear masks.
“It looks exactly like it did last year,” Robbins said of her classroom, adding that she has 34 students so social distancing is difficult.
Cherokee Superintendent Brian Hightower has said this is what his community wants. The families of more than three-quarters of the students chose the classroom over studying online at home.
North Paulding High was closed temporarily, and some are pushing school leaders to keep the schools there open. “It is not healthy for our kids to live in fear. This COVID-19 will eventually go away, just like every virus that’s ever been around,” Valerie Tribuiani told the school board last week. “We don’t need to be afraid.”
Mariah Krakowski, a sophomore, said her first days back at North Paulding High were joyous. “I was reminded how easily that could be taken away,” Mariah told the board. “Online does not have the social aspect that we need.” On Monday, North Paulding students will attend face-to-face classes on alternate days, based on their last names. With half the students in the building, Paulding hopes to reduce potential exposures.
Cartersville City Schools — a tiny district between Cherokee and Paulding — is also beginning its school year this way this week. “If we can get our kids in two days a week, it’s a whole lot better than no days a week,” Superintendent Marc Feuerbach said.
Health experts have stressed that if communities want real school, then they need to wear masks. In the early days of the pandemic, mostly older people were getting the virus, said Sandra Elizabeth Ford, district health director of DeKalb County. “What we are seeing now is a dramatic shift toward younger folk. We have to absolutely require a mask for everyone in schools.”
Kemp has refused to mandate masks in schools or the state, but he says they are important and is letting some cities impose mask mandates. Dr. Kathleen Toomey, his health commissioner, has stressed their value during conference calls with superintendents. State school Superintendent Richard Woods has said school districts can mandate them as part of their dress code but also says, “I know this has become a political issue.”
Health experts advise that children wear masks, attend classes in separate groups that minimize mixing, and frequently wash their hands. They also advise social distancing, for instance arranging desks 3 to 6 feet apart and in the same direction so children are not facing one another, Dr. Tan said.
Schools must also have effective ventilation systems, and teachers need more personal protection equipment than a bottle of spray cleaner and a rag, which some Georgia teachers have said is all their district provided them.
Former Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said schools must approach COVID-19 safety protocols as expected behaviors, much as schools demand children sit down on school buses
If not, then infections will force them to close and reopen repeatedly. “If we don’t get serious about the science and the ways kids and educators or anybody who works in that school are expected to behave, whether wearing a mask, hand hygiene or social distancing, we are going to be going back and forth,” Carstarphen said.
Sara B. Johnson, associate professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health, said, “One of our great challenges is to communicate to parents and caregivers that this is the year where, if you previously thought maybe a few sniffles were good for your child’s immune system or probably were nothing or might have been their allergies, this is the year in which we really need you to err on the side of caution and keep your child home.”
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