Opinion: Georgia schools embrace wait-and-see approach to omicron

As cases surge, schools must balance staying open with safety concerns

Nationwide, most schools resuming classes amid the onslaught of the highly contagious omicron variant are embracing the approach espoused by former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio: “Stay safe, stay open.”

That’s easier to do in New York where all school employees must be vaccinated. The New York City system — the nation’s largest with nearly a million students — will distribute at-home testing kits to all students in classrooms with exposures. The city also mandates vaccines for students involved in extracurricular activities deemed high risk for COVID-19 transmission, including athletics, band, chorus, and musical theater.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey embrace a more hands-off approach to omicron, calling for monitoring rather than mandating.

Despite the intention of many metro K-12 districts to open face-to-face this week, omicron may dictate otherwise, shown by the announcements — at last count — that Atlanta, Clayton, DeKalb, Forsyth, Fulton and Rockdale are resuming remotely.

The staffing crises that canceled thousands of airline flights underscore the potency of omicron. For those districts set on face-to-face, finding enough substitute teachers may reach crisis status, said Margaret Ciccarelli, director of legislative services for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. Her organization is already talking to lawmakers about raising state reimbursement for subs. “Schools are doing their best to serve students,” she said. “Bear with us.”

A vulnerability is the state’s vaccination rates. Overall, only 53% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated. Few kids and teens have even had a single dose. According to the state Department of Public Health, the breakdown of children and teens with at least a single dose as of Friday are 13.5% of ages 5 to 9, 35.5% of ages 10 to 14, and 51.5% of those 15 to 19.

Other states have been more aggressive in pushing vaccinations. In a message to Californians, Dr. Tomás Aragón, state public health officer and director, said: “Omicron is so contagious that it finds unvaccinated/non-immune people who are most vulnerable for hospitalizations and deaths.”

Another vulnerability is Georgia’s aversion to mask mandates. A study released Wednesday by Duke University’s ABC Science Collaborative found children and staff who test negative for COVID-19 and are asymptomatic after contact with someone who has the coronavirus can safely remain in schools with mask mandates.

Danny Benjamin, co-chair of the collaborative and distinguished professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Duke School of Medicine, said current protocols cast a wide net. Schools can become overwhelmed attempting to test students and fall back on quarantines. “Thus, thousands of healthy children nationally who should be in school are going to be quarantined under the current way this is being advised,” he said.

In the study, testing was far more targeted. When students had brief unmasked contact with a positive classmate, such as during lunch, they could remain in class if they underwent a rapid-antigen test at school and remained asymptomatic. Even with many fewer students tested and only tested once or twice, the study recorded low transmission rates of both the delta, 2%, and omicron, 4%. (One piece of bad news: Athletes were 10% of students exposed to COVID-19, but more than 50% of the positive cases, said Benjamin, raising questions on indoor winter sports.)

“We reduced the number of tests by 90%,” said Benjamin. Missed days of school from quarantine fell by more than 90%, saving 1,628 days of in-person learning over the course of the study.

But most K-12 districts outside metro Atlanta shirk masks, bowing to parents. The University System of Georgia has forbidden mask mandates on the campuses of its 26 public institutions, a policy that could contribute to a rough start to the new semester as COVID-19 cases skyrocket among younger people.

The greatest proportion of Georgia cases comes from young adults, aged 18-29, said Amber Schmidtke, a public health researcher who tracks COVID-19 in Georgia. In an update Saturday, she noted, “Between lower vaccination rates among young adults and greater rates of exposure due to in-person gatherings, school environments or being essential workers themselves, young adults are also our highest number of people needing COVID-19 hospitalization, for two weeks in a row now.”

The University of Georgia administration has been silent on any new COVID protocols, said math professor Joseph Fu, whose decision to ignore policy and mandate masks in his classes has earned student accolades. “I think the mood among faculty is quiet dread. On the plus side, at least we know what to expect now: I haven’t heard any of the fantasies that preceded the past few semesters, that we would go online, or could win a vaccine or mask mandate.”