At many Georgia schools with in-person classes, parents face tough decision

When the Forsyth County School District starts fall classes, students can attend in person or remotely, because of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. In Georgia counties offering in-person classes, parents have a lot to weigh in deciding whether to send their kids to school. FORSYTH COUNTY SCHOOLS VIA FACEBOOK
When the Forsyth County School District starts fall classes, students can attend in person or remotely, because of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. In Georgia counties offering in-person classes, parents have a lot to weigh in deciding whether to send their kids to school. FORSYTH COUNTY SCHOOLS VIA FACEBOOK

Retreating from a relentless pandemic, schools in and around Atlanta will go online this fall, but most in Georgia still plan to open their doors, forcing hundreds of thousands of parents to calculate on their own whether it is worth the risk to send in their kids.

Many districts are offering a choice between in-person and online schooling, though the number moving online-only keeps growing. Like superintendents, parents have imperfect information for a choice that pits what is best for their children — and for paying their bills — against illness and even death.

“There’s just so much up in the air that it’s really hard,” said Seth Heringer, a father of five small children in Habersham County, with two who are old enough for school. The theology professor is having to draw on calculus lessons from his student days to decide whether it is safe enough to send them to school, or whether he should keep them home, undermining both their educations and his own ability to do his job.

He keeps track of COVID-19 infections in a spreadsheet. “I have to be an armchair epidemiologist,” he said.

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In some places, Habersham included, a dearth of data has led to mistrust and accusations of political posturing, given the pressure from President Donald Trump to open schools.

The superintendent in Heringer’s northeast Georgia community, Matthew Cooper, has said his decision to open was guided by the Georgia Department of Public Health, Gov. Brian Kemp and the Georgia Department of Education.

“So what am I to do with that as a public school superintendent? I’ll tell you what I’m to do with that: to heed that guidance,” Cooper told his school board on July 20. He acknowledged that social distancing — the only known tool to limit the spread of COVID-19 besides the donning of masks — “will be difficult if not impossible” on many school buses.

This led to a heated exchange between Cooper and one board member.

“It’s political guidance,” the board member, John Elger, said before he walked out mid-meeting, clearly upset. “And we’ve seen what political guidance has done in this country. Have you seen how we compare to the rest of the world?”

Elger, a lawyer with degrees in engineering and business and a former president of Piedmont College, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution later that he’d seen media analyses of state data that suggest it is too dangerous to send kids to school, especially in a community where a segment of the population would “go to war” against a mask mandate in school.

Cooper’s plan encourages but does not require masks.

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Some are looking beyond the state for guidance.

On the same day of that argument in the Habersham board meeting, the superintendent in Muscogee County, 200 miles to the southwest, was reversing course on his plans for in-person schooling. Superintendent David Lewis said his decision to go online-only was guided by epidemiologists at Emory University.

They told him three key indicators — the weekly infection rate, the percent of coronavirus tests that showed infection and the demand on local hospitals — suggested it was too dangerous to open schools.

State public health officials didn’t disagree with keeping the schools closed, Lewis said. “They didn’t say you should do this, but they certainly concurred with the reasoning behind this.”

Lewis said surveying shows his community is split on whether to hold school in person. “This has been one of the toughest decisions any of us has ever faced,” he said.

A survey by Forsyth County Schools north of Atlanta found 49% of the more than 8,000 respondents — most of them parents but some students and staff — “not at all comfortable” sending kids to elementary school.

Teachers in Forsyth County expressed concerns about safety, such as not having mandates to wear masks or to test those who have had, or may have been exposed to, the virus. And with 25 to 30 students per class, how can there be enough space to socially distance, two of them wondered.

A spokesperson for Forsyth County Schools said the district guidance on testing and virus exposure is evolving and has been approved by the state health department. The spokesperson said each school will be “looking at their spaces” and “setting up areas that comply” with the school board guidelines.

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The stakes, and the pressure to make the right decision, are huge.

As U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, state School Superintendent Richard Woods, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and many other leaders and organizations have observed, online school last spring was generally inadequate.

Many areas lack high-speed internet access. And even for students with access, schools were mostly unable to track what they learned or even whether they logged in. Schools also offer a safety net, especially for poorer students, providing food, health care, counseling and access to social services. Teachers can provide a crucial link to authorities for children suffering from abuse at home.

Infectious diseases experts say it’s understandable that people are having a hard time weighing all that against the largely invisible risk of COVID-19.

“The best indicator would be one that we do not have,” said Dr. Richard Rothenberg, an epidemiology professor at Georgia State University.

He said the state and the rest of the country need “ongoing surveillance” to better gauge the local risk of the virus. By that, the Harvard-trained infectious diseases expert means a massive increase in testing with results broken out by demographic groups and by location.

“Because we don’t have that surveillance in place, we’re fumbling around,” he said. “Although we don’t have the data that we really need, the data we do have suggests it would be better not to open at this point.”

That is not what parents want to hear, but it is what many of them fear.

Miranda Roberts, whose son will be in eighth grade this fall, was traumatized by online learning last spring. If her school system two hours southeast of Atlanta does that again, she said, “I might lose my mind; there is not enough wine in the state of Georgia.”

Although she has an autoimmune disorder that makes exposure to the coronavirus more dangerous for her, she is not choosing the online option that Baldwin County Public Schools is offering. Roberts works as a residential property manager and said her son, 13, won’t apply himself online without someone at home to push him.

“So I’m stuck with sending my son to school,” she said. “I don’t want to.”

Back in northeast Georgia, Jennifer Taylor thinks the Habersham school district’s online option is inadequate, but she is choosing it anyway. One of her two teenagers has asthma. The occupational therapist routinely wears a mask and other protective gear when she visits patients at home. She doesn’t trust the data the district has used to say it is safe to reopen, in part because a local hospital has warned that infections are rising fast.

“I think our numbers can be manipulated however they need to be to make them say whatever,” she said. “It’s obviously here.”