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Opinion: Oconee’s plan to reopen schools next week jeopardizes students, staff

Protesters hold up signs asking for a mask policy in Oconee County schools during a "School Safety First Rally" at the Oconee County Board of Education in Watkinsville, Ga., on Wednesday, July 15, 2020. Parents and teachers expressed their concerns about teachers and students not having to be tested for COVID-19 before returning to school and there being no mandatory mask policy. Parents have also formed a Facebook group Safety First – Reopening Schools and are circulating a petition demanding that a group of teachers and parents be formed to be part creating the guideline for the reopening process. (Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald via AP)
Protesters hold up signs asking for a mask policy in Oconee County schools during a "School Safety First Rally" at the Oconee County Board of Education in Watkinsville, Ga., on Wednesday, July 15, 2020. Parents and teachers expressed their concerns about teachers and students not having to be tested for COVID-19 before returning to school and there being no mandatory mask policy. Parents have also formed a Facebook group Safety First – Reopening Schools and are circulating a petition demanding that a group of teachers and parents be formed to be part creating the guideline for the reopening process. (Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald via AP)

Credit: Joshua L. Jones

Credit: Joshua L. Jones

The Georgia district will be among first in country to resume in-person instruction amid pandemic

In a guest column, three parents voice alarm over the decision by Oconee County Schools to open on Aug. 5 without a mask mandate and with what the authors deem insufficient safeguards to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Attorney Courtney Davis, scientist Melissa Hopkinson and social worker Andrea Wellnitz want to make clear the opinions expressed are their own as parents in Oconee Schools and don’t reflect those of any institutions with which they are affiliated.

By Courtney Davis, Melissa Hopkinson and Andrea Wellnitz

As school systems around the state are coming up with creative ways to safely start their school year, from hybrid schedules, to online learning, to delaying the start date, here in Oconee County, it is business as usual.

We will be one of the first districts to return to school in the entire country, and we are doing so with virtually no concrete safeguards for in-person instruction. We, the people of Oconee County, are guinea pigs in a national experiment.

How was this decision to start school at the height of the pandemic with minimal precautions made? It is unclear, and that is part of the problem. Although school principals were part of the planning process for the 2020-2021 school year, few teachers were consulted. The pleas of the local scientific and healthcare communities were ignored.

With relatively little information about in-person safety protocols, families were asked to commit to a semester (or nine weeks for elementary-aged children) of digital learning with Georgia Virtual Academy or to return to in-person learning with the apparently false promise that as cases spiked, the system would transition to hybrid or digital instruction.

When asked about what safety protocols would be in place for in-person learning, the superintendent’s office had vague plans for contact tracing and acknowledged that six-foot spacing would not be possible; in fact, students would likely be spaced two to three feet apart in many rooms. The superintendent’s office also stated the district would not mandate masks, claiming mask mandates were counterproductive, and that masks would be encouraged for students.

Masks have been “encouraged” throughout the region for more than four months now, and cases are skyrocketing, with Georgia being listed as one of 18 state hot spots in the country for the virus. On July 23, Oconee County recorded its highest number of infections since May, and the county has had a 57% increase in cases in the last 14 days.

Despite these rising numbers, students and teachers will return to classrooms on Aug. 5, less than two weeks from now. Though individual schools have crafted building-specific plans, such as changing traffic patterns in the hallways and reducing the numbers of children in the cafeteria at a given time, these efforts are simply not enough.

Without real efforts to reduce the number of students in the schools in a meaningful way and mandate masks, we are treading into dangerous territory, making us an outlier among school systems.

We recognize the value of in-person instruction and want this desperately for our children, but we want it when cases are not surging and we want it done in the safest manner possible.

What is especially alarming about our school district’s stance is that the most recent research shows children 10 and over are very likely to transmit the virus. The superintendent and Board of Education are ignoring the science on the virus and the widely accepted efficacy of masks in reducing transmission. Other school districts in Georgia with the good sense to mandate masks, to take a pause, or to begin online, will have their eyes on us.

And when the cases start piling up, as they will, it will be too late to turn the clock back, and wish we had not had our heads in the sand.

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