“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.”
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.
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.”