Opinion: Local control can’t work with virus without boundaries

07/20/2020 - Suwanee, Georgia - Gwinnett Educators for Equity and Justice and supporters holds signs as they march in front of the Gwinnett County Public School Board building during a rally in Suwanee, Monday, July 20, 2020. Supporters of Gwinnett County Public School teachers and staff marched a little over a mile to raise awareness of their concerns for starting off the school year in-person, instead of online, due to COVID-19. On Monday, Gwinnett County Public School Board announced that it will join most other districts in metro Atlanta and hold classes this fall online-only. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

The Editorial Board’s opinion.

If the state of Georgia responded to hurricanes the way it has to coronavirus, it would hand out umbrellas and promise sunny skies.

Nowhere has this reliance on genial bromides and lack of hands-on leadership been more acute than in Georgia’s response to COVID-19 and schools. The burden of figuring out how to keep students and teachers safe has fallen on local school chiefs, who have no deadly pandemic playbook and face politicized and polarized debates in their communities over the severity of COVID-19 and the efficacy of masks.

Unlike hurricanes where governors issue mandatory evacuations to protect lives, Gov. Brian Kemp has chosen to stay clear of the COVID gale winds battering schools, saying, “We’ve given the responsibility to the schools, to the local superintendents ... I think schools are trying to do the right thing and it’s just my hope that we’ll get kids back in the classroom.”

“They literally have dropped a life-and-death decision on a superintendent’s desk,” said Grant Rivera, superintendent of Marietta City Schools.

School chiefs are not infectious disease physicians, epidemiologists or risk assessment statisticians. Nor do they have the access that Kemp has to those experts. In telling districts to make the call whether to open their buildings, the state has allowed local politics and misinformation to influence decisions. An example: the audience applauded at a recent Paulding County school board meeting when parents said mask-wearing was not effective for children and wearing one should always be a student’s personal choice.

Kemp’s good wishes aside, local districts have a long list of urgent needs, including far more money for personal protection equipment and technology improvements to build the muscle and infrastructure for online learning. They also need clear and detailed guidance from the state that clarifies the COVID-19 metrics necessary to even consider reopening for face-to-face classes. Some districts that have opened with high community rates of spread are now experiencing rolling school closures, as large-scale quarantines confine teachers to their homes and empty classrooms.

The governor cannot encourage schools to open without giving them essential data and resources. “At the federal and state levels, there is a lack of consistent messaging, a lack of using data consistently, a lack of benchmarks that school systems, superintendents and boards of education can use to basically say, ‘Well, if the data is here, we’re in a good place to open, albeit with some risks.’ No one is willing to exceed the politics and make a scientifically based, research-driven decision,” said Clayton County Schools Superintendent Morcease Beasley .

There isn’t even a state-coordinated reporting system of school-related cases, so Georgia’s 180 school districts are jerry-rigging their own, leading to inconsistent and incomplete records that prevent parents and educators from understanding the dangers lurking in their own backyards. (Kudos to Cherokee County Schools for its early and transparent data reporting.)

The agencies most likely to coordinate such reporting -- the Georgia Department of Education and the Georgia Department of Public Health -- have no plans to do so. Without accurate and current infection data and a stronger bridge between K-12 schools and public health, there will be no clear road map to reopening classrooms safely in Georgia this school year. (The news Tuesday that the Georgia Department of Education appointed a K-12 public health liaison was a good first step.)

Consider the requirement that Georgia teachers exposed to COVID-19 quarantine for 14 days, which is causing school districts suffering debilitating staff shortages to ask that educators be classified as “essential workers.” That designation would enable exposed teachers to stay in classrooms as long as they displayed no symptoms. To safely enact such a policy, schools need rapid COVID-19 tests to tell them whether a teacher can deviate from the two-week quarantine. School districts cannot do that on their own.

Local control is not a workable response to a wily and persistent virus that has no boundaries and no cures.

The Editorial Board.

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