COVID cases reported as schools reopen in Georgia

Parents walk their children to the entrance of Woodstock Elementary School in Cherokee County on the first day of school on August 3, 2020. A second-grade class at Sixes Elementary School  in Cherokee will have to quarantine for two weeks after a student tested positive for COVID-19. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Caption
Parents walk their children to the entrance of Woodstock Elementary School in Cherokee County on the first day of school on August 3, 2020. A second-grade class at Sixes Elementary School in Cherokee will have to quarantine for two weeks after a student tested positive for COVID-19. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

A handful of schools in Georgia opened this week as the pandemic raged beyond their doors, while officials worked to balance the risk of spreading the coronavirus against the urgent need to get students in front of teachers.

The pandemic did not stay outside the schoolhouse doors in Canton. In its second day of the new school year, the Cherokee County School District shut down a second-grade classroom at Sixes Elementary School after a student tested positive for COVID-19, spokeswoman Barbara Jacoby said Tuesday, adding that the teacher and 20 other students in the class must quarantine for two weeks. The teacher, who is symptom-free, will teach the class online from home and the classroom will be deep cleaned.

Jacoby said the Sixes Elementary student showed no symptoms during school on Monday; when the symptoms began after school, the student’s parents sought medical assistance and testing that resulted in the positive diagnosis.

Also, on the first day of school Tuesday in Marietta, where students are fully remote, a spokeswoman said five district employees had tested positive for COVID-19.

More than three-quarters of Cherokee County’s 42,000 students returned to classes Monday, while 23% chose the district’s digital learning option. Cherokee is among the first districts in the country to reopen in what will be a vast experiment in keeping a wily and determined virus at bay.

“We are still not sure what the best ways to open different schools are,” said Charlene Wong, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Duke School of Medicine. “This is going to be an opportunity for us to learn and to course correct as we go because we are probably not going to get it right out of the gate…this is the first time we ever tried to do something at this scale across the country. "

Some districts that had planned to hold in-person activities are reconsidering as the virus surges.

The City Schools of Decatur had previously decided to start school online Aug. 17, but on Tuesday announced it was postponing sports and other extracurricular activities until late September and no longer opening its child care center this week. An employee who visited the center tested positive for COVID-19, the district said.

Other districts were moving forward with in-person plans. Gwinnett and Cobb county school districts — the first and second largest in the state — both announced on Tuesday plans to return to in-person classes.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, repeated Monday what many child advocates, including the American Academy of Pediatricians, have been saying for weeks: students need school for the psychological and nutritional benefits. He added a crucial caveat: only if they can be there safely, according to CNN.

ExploreHere’s how metro Atlanta school districts are starting the school year

Parents such as Tara Duke of Paulding County have had to make a difficult choice. Paulding is meeting in person, but the single mother of four enrolled her children in the district’s online alternative because she felt the schools would be too risky.

After glitches during the first two days this week she worried she made the wrong decision. Live video sessions on Zoom have been canceled and rescheduled and she’s not sure her youngest boys will be able to keep track of their changing schedules once she returns to work.

She said a teacher leading about 40 students lost her connection to Zoom Tuesday, “and all the kids were just sitting there talking to each other … where’s the teacher, where’s the teacher?”

Duke manages an office a half-hour drive from home, so her mother, age 74, would have been the one collecting the kids from school. People her age are at a higher risk of severe consequences from COVID-19, so Duke opted for online.

Photos published online by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Monday show parents in nearby Cherokee County walking children to school in clusters, often without masks.

“That’s unquestionably unsafe,” said Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State University School of Public Health, after reviewing the photos at the AJC’s request.

Cherokee and Paulding both encourage but don’t mandate masks for students.

Dr. Marybeth Sexton, an assistant professor of medicine at Emory University’s Division of Infectious Diseases, said the latest research indicates that teenagers are just as capable as adults at spreading the virus. Handwashing is important, but face coverings and social distancing are more important since the disease is mostly spread from one person to the next by respiratory droplets, she said. “This is really a respiratory virus.”

Heiman, who has been critical of Georgia’s handling of the pandemic, was also troubled by a photo that circulated on social media: it shows scores of Cherokee County seniors posing shoulder-to-shoulder outside Etowah High School on the first day of classes Monday, nearly all of them without a mask.

Seniors at Etowah High School in Cherokee County posed for the traditional color-coordinated senior photo on Aug, 3, 2020, the first day back to classes in the COVID era. The photo went viral because the students are not wearing masks and crowded together for the shot.
Caption
Seniors at Etowah High School in Cherokee County posed for the traditional color-coordinated senior photo on Aug, 3, 2020, the first day back to classes in the COVID era. The photo went viral because the students are not wearing masks and crowded together for the shot.

Credit: Facebook

Credit: Facebook

The Cherokee spokeswoman said a parent, and not school staff, took the photo. “We are strongly encouraging and recommending all students wear masks inside the school and on buses and are providing all students with two reusable masks,” said Jacoby.

Not everyone was outraged, pointing out that first-day photos are a senior tradition and likely only took a few minutes to assemble and take.

“Photos represent a moment in time,” said Buzz Brockway, a former Gwinnett state representative and now an appointed member of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission. “How do we know these kids weren’t wearing a mask all day except for the moment this photo was taken? Would y’all want your senior photo with a mask?”