Georgia’s COVID-19 surge upends preschools and leaves parents scrambling

A preschool room is finished and decorated at the new Michelle Obama STEM Elementary Academy in Hampton on Friday, July 23, 2021. Omicron has caused service disruptions in preschools. They serve a population that is mostly too young to get vaccinated. (Christine Tannous / AJC file photo)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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A preschool room is finished and decorated at the new Michelle Obama STEM Elementary Academy in Hampton on Friday, July 23, 2021. Omicron has caused service disruptions in preschools. They serve a population that is mostly too young to get vaccinated. (Christine Tannous / AJC file photo)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Rhanatah Harrison and her husband have two little kids and demanding jobs, so they had a problem when their Decatur preschool didn’t open as expected after the holidays.

They can both work from home but it’s hard to get anything done with the children, 4 and 1, at their feet. One parent takes a break while the other works.

“It’s just incredibly taxing on parents that work full time,” she said.

Georgia preschools have cut hours, closed classrooms and even shut down entirely amid a surge of coronavirus cases due to the omicron variant. On Wednesday, Georgia reported a new daily high of more than 25,000 confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases statewide.

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Six metro Atlanta school districts shifted online this week. At least one — Rockdale County — will also remain virtual next week.

But preschools struggle online because the children are so young.

The scope of the disruption is unclear. The agency that regulates preschools says 92 of them closed temporarily in December amid the growing public health emergency. That’s a tiny fraction of the more than 4,300 facilities in Georgia. The state doesn’t track the number of smaller service reductions, such as reduced hours or closed classrooms.

“Everybody and their brother tests positive,” said Ellen Reynolds, CEO of the Georgia Child Care Association.

When that happens, staff members must isolate or go into quarantine, and the schools where they work have to turn kids away, she said.

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One metro Atlanta provider told her that at least a fifth of the 100 employees at their preschool — including the CEO — were at home after positive tests.

“I hear it a lot in metro (Atlanta), but I’ve heard it from other corners of the state, as well,” Reynolds said.

The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning is working with the state health department to update its regulations to reflect the new federal guidance, which shortens isolation and quarantine periods, agency spokesman Reg Griffin said. In the meantime, he said, preschools can follow new state rules for the general public that reflect the federal guidance.

Reynolds said some local health agencies are still telling preschools to follow the old rules, which she said has contributed to service disruptions.

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The variance between K-12 and preschool requirements has been a headache for providers such as Sandi Bennett. She often must tell parents that their exposed kindergartner cannot enter her facility even when the Cobb County School District let that student attend class earlier in the day.

“Our rules are different than the K through 12 rules,” said Bennett, founder of a Kids ‘R’ Kids franchise in Mableton. “Parents are very confused about that.”

Then there’s the fact that people under age 5 — the bulk of her clientele — are ineligible for vaccination. And the ones under age 2 typically don’t do well with masks.

“These children are small,” Bennett said. “They’re in each other’s face, so if one child in the classroom tests positive, then pretty much the entire class has to quarantine.”

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Andrew Kessel, a public school teacher who must work in person, said his Atlanta preschool told parents that half their staff couldn’t work this week because of COVID-19 exposure or infection.

That left him and his wife in a bind. She is a medical doctor who also must work in person.

“They’ve actually said that beyond this week it will probably be interruptions through next week as well but they don’t have anything definitive,” he said Monday.

That meant their son, 2, could only attend three days this week instead of the usual five.

His daughter, 4, moved on from the preschool to a pre-K program at a different center that had not curtailed service in her classroom.

On Wednesday, though, Kessel learned someone in her classroom had tested positive for COVID-19, so she had to quarantine.

Staff writer J. Scott Trubey contributed to this report.