Early school COVID cases have parents wary, health officials watching

UPDATE: A mask mandate has been enacted for Henry County Schools.

Schools around metro Atlanta opened their doors last week to students, including hundreds who were infected with the coronavirus, leading to quarantines of students and staff and safety concerns among parents.

Observers say it’s too soon to tell whether the numbers reported by schools thus far indicate that they will facilitate the spread of the new, and more transmissible, delta variant. The case counts likely reflect exposure over summer break.

They represent a tiny fraction of overall enrollment.

The 254 cases reported by Gwinnett County Public Schools on Friday are a sliver of the nearly 180,000 students in the state’s largest school district. A spokeswoman noted that 99.999% of students are “virus free,” and said there were no cases of in-school transmission, the infections representing the spread of the disease out in the community.

The Cherokee County School District reported more cases per student than Gwinnett. Still, the 196 infections amounted to less than half a percent of the 41,000 students there. COVID-19 does appear to be spreading more broadly among youths there, though, with the rate for kids in the community double what it was this time last year. The overall youth infection rate for the county, including those in private schools and younger than school age, was 92 cases in the first week of August last year versus 173 this year, said Ashley Deverell, immunization coordinator with the North Georgia Health District.

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Fewer people in Cherokee are wearing masks, she said, and the virus may also have reached children during their summer travels to places with high transmission rates, such as Florida. Also, home tests are available now and they were not last fall, further complicating the numbers, since it’s unclear to what extent those results are being reported to health authorities.

“There’s a lot of factors but definitely the data looks to support that we’re seeing a lot more cases this time than last year,” Deverell said. She added that many infected children may not have entered their school building and didn’t transmit COVID-19 to other students.

Still, some see the infection reports as evidence that schools need to be cautious.

Community infection levels for all age groups in Gwinnett are less than half of what they were a year ago, said Dr. Audrey Arona, district health director of the Gwinnett, Newton, and Rockdale County Health Departments. But at 145 cases per 100,000 residents, the numbers have increased five-fold from the beginning of July, when they were at 31 cases.

“We’re seeing rising case numbers and if we keep going like we’re going, we’re going to be up to where we were a year ago,” Arona said.

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Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Unlike some school districts in Georgia, the three under Arona’s umbrella mandate masks. But parents need to be using the same precautions at home to shield their children from exposure, she said.

Too many people misread the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance earlier this summer that said vaccinated people could remove their masks in public, Arona said. “When the CDC suggested vaccinated people could relax on some of that, unfortunately, everybody relaxed.”

Winston Murdock has two children in a Gwinnett elementary school and said he heard through social media that a student there was quarantined due to the infection of a family member. “Thank God for the mask mandate,” he said after seeing Gwinnett schools’ case count. “... I don’t even want to think of how many we would have without masks.”

The Cobb County School District opened its doors last week without the mask mandate that was in place last school year, despite CDC guidance for universal mask-wearing in schools. Jin Cai, who has children in the schools there, watched warily as hospitalizations spiked in Louisiana and Florida. She created an online petition calling on Cobb to mandate masks.

“It’s really an act of kindness to others,” she said. “Can we sacrifice a little bit of freedom and comfort for the greater good of our community?”

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Cobb schools said its protocols, which were updated last week and are in line with the Georgia Department of Public Health’s latest administrative order, are designed to balance the importance of face-to-face learning with “the frequent changes associated with COVID-19.”

The state administrative order, issued last week, allows schools to write their own quarantine protocols, even if those protocols do not follow CDC recommendations.

“This pandemic continues to impact students, staff, and families differently throughout Cobb County, and we will continue to update our school protocols accordingly,” the district said Monday.

Some school districts, such as Clayton County, have followed the CDC guidance, requiring masks. Henry County Schools on Clayton’s eastern border had not mandated them, which was a concern for Stockbridge Mayor Pro Tem Elton Alexander.

Credit: Leon Stafford

Credit: Leon Stafford

In an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Monday, Alexander called on the county school board to pass a mask mandate “without any further delay.” The board passed a mandate Monday night.

Masks are required indoors in Henry schools “when responsible distancing is not possible.” By Monday, the district of 43,000 students had documented the infections of 46 students and 23 staffers, with 345 students and 68 staffers quarantined.

Some school districts that were not requiring masks have recently reversed course. Fulton County ordered last week that masks be worn in schools where surrounding infection rates had risen above 100 per 100,000 residents. That included nearly all of the school district.

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Douglas County, which has reported 62 cases, also made them mandatory after the Cobb and Douglas Public Health district director, Dr. Janet Memark, went on YouTube to urge schools to follow the CDC guidance and after a 17-year-old student there reportedly died with COVID-19.

Cobb school board member Leroy “Tre” Hutchins said his district’s numbers are what he expected, but he’s also hearing from some parents that they are unable to get a COVID-19 test so the actual numbers could be higher.

Hutchins said his son, who is in fifth grade, is already back home with a fever after being in school for a week. He said he wants to see the district “follow the guidance from the professionals who get paid to make sure our community stays safe.”

Deverell, the immunization coordinator for the health department covering Cherokee, said the new case counts are just a snapshot in time: It is unclear what they portend for future infection numbers in the schools.

“It’s only a week in,” she said. “I think as the weeks go on we’ll definitely have a better idea of what the trajectory is going to be.”

Staff writers Alia Malik and Leon Stafford and editor Susan Hogan contributed to this article.