Are we ready to reopen schools in Georgia as virus surges?

Soaring infection rates and exposures are not sparing state's educators

Of all the declarations about reopening Georgia schools amid the surging coronavirus pandemic, Dooly County Schools Superintendent Craig Lockhart said it best: “We are not ready.”

Lockhart is not referencing the shift to online classes. “We are ready to teach virtually, and we are getting better with that each day. When schools are able to reopen in person with students, we will be even better teachers because of the virtual experience. Ironically, the time we have spent learning how to teach virtually actually accelerates our profession to where we need to be in the 21st century,” he said.

What schools are not ready for — and cannot be ready for until Georgia makes the hard choices to repel this wily and determined virus — is bringing staff and students back to buildings.

Gov. Brian Kemp continues to resist pleas to mandate masks as 30 governors have done, close bars and nightclubs, or prohibit indoor dining and gatherings of more than 10 people. Those measures were among the recommendations in an open letter to Kemp last week signed by more than 2,000 worried health care workers and top infectious disease experts, who warned Georgia is setting records for new COVID-19 diagnoses and current hospitalizations, and deaths are climbing.

Georgia achieved a new peak with 4,813 COVID-19 cases on July 24. In comparison, when Kemp ordered Georgians to shelter in place on April 3, the highest number of cases the state had seen on a single day was 1,085 on March 31, the letter said.

“We are not ready to have full in-person contact consisting of hundreds of students, faculty and staff with the expectation that no one spread or contracts COVID-19,” said Lockhart. “On our second day of preplanning, we had to shut our doors just to protect the employees, and no students were even present to cause additional concern. So long as COVID-19 runs rampant, there will be too many bodies in close quarters for us to co-exist in a traditional setting. We are not ready to return to in-person schooling and be highly confident that we can protect employees and students.”

ExploreCOVID-19 exposure forces Pickens, Dooly counties to delay school start

Dooly was not the only Georgia school district forced to retreat as the spike in infections undermined a safe reopening. Pickens County Schools was supposed to welcome back students this week, but Superintendent Rick Townsend delayed it two weeks after coronavirus exposures among staff at one of the district’s six schools, Hill City Elementary. “We’ve had multiple exposures, a real outbreak at Hill City. We could not open up Hill City on time on Monday,” said Townsend in a video message. “The entire staff’s going to get tested. I’ll be tested myself. I was there.”

Many proponents of face-to-face classes argue other countries have done it safely, something that Ibukun Christine Akinboyo, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the division of pediatric infectious diseases at the Duke School of Medicine and a medical director of pediatric infection prevention at Duke University Medical Center, acknowledged in a recent press briefing with other Duke experts.

“I will say there have been a number of countries, particularly in Europe, that have opened schools safely and have done so in the context of low community prevalence of COVID-19,” said Akinboyo. “We can learn a lot, and one of the main things we can learn is the only way to open schools safely would be to have comprehensive approaches to reducing COVID-19 transmissions in our community. That requires everyone — every single person who exists in the community — to play a part so when schools open, at the very least, we do not create a community bleed where transmission within a community is also happening within school.”

The bleed can be seen in Gwinnett County Public Schools, which reported on Sunday that 260 employees have tested positive for the coronavirus or are in quarantine because of possible exposure. District employees reported back to work Wednesday, many upset over Gwinnett’s decision they work in their buildings even while instruction would be virtual.

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

Despite the high incidence of COVID-19, metro area parents continue to rally for face-to-face classes, including hundreds who attended a Cobb event on Saturday. Among the signs that parents held: “My child. My taxes. My choice,” Teachers are essential workers,” and “Our kids are suffering. They need to be in school.”

“There is a really strong case for trying to reopen schools because there are so many benefits, both for children, not only academic benefits but health and social-emotional health, and also for families, many of whom are trying to get back to work to restart the economy,” said Charlene Wong, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Duke School of Medicine.

But Wong said the decision to reopen is complex. “We really need to proceed with caution and care and avoid broad sweeping mandates about requiring schools to reopen because we are still very early in learning about the experiences of children with this virus, especially in schools and congregate settings. A relatively small proportion of research thus far has been on children.”

Experts don’t disagree with the contention of many parents that their kids pay a high price when their schools close, with young children losing the most ground from shuttered classrooms.

“I do think not being in-person in the school building is likely to bring a loss,” said Kenneth Dodge, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, where he studies early childhood development. “Remote education compensates. I think we are fooling ourselves if we think it will compensate 100%, but it may be necessary. It may be the best thing we can do.”

“Social distancing, wearing face coverings, sheltering in place, and practicing good hygiene can help control the problem, but many of our human egos are convinced that we can ignore these rules and win a boxing match against Mother Nature,” said Lockhart, the Dooly school chief. “Until a vaccine is created and we collectively humble ourselves by following the rules for stopping COVID-19, we will be stuck in a vicious cycle of being chased and hunted by an invisible foe. With flu season quickly approaching, the full in person reopening of schools, in my opinion, may bring disastrous results. I hope I am wrong.”