Metro Atlanta parents weigh risks of schools reopening amid omicron

Metro Atlanta teachers and students are preparing to return to school buildings next week. (ALYSSA POINTER / AJC FILE PHOTO)



Metro Atlanta teachers and students are preparing to return to school buildings next week. (ALYSSA POINTER / AJC FILE PHOTO)

As metro Atlanta schools prepare to reopen after winter break, Jocelyn Morgan is among many parents watching warily.

She knows about the explosion of COVID-19 cases that sparked by the highly contagious omicron variant.

Morgan wonders if she should wait a few extra days before returning her daughter to her Atlanta kindergarten. She plans to give her an at-home coronavirus test before sending her back.

“I’m super nervous,” she said. “I honestly don’t know what we’ll do next week.”

COVID-19 cases spiked in some area school districts in the days before the two-week break. In mid-December, Atlanta Public Schools reported 435 cases among students and staff — its second highest weekly count for this school year.

Health officials fear holiday gatherings and travel could accelerate the rise in infections, posing the potential for school staffing shortages and heightening safety concerns.

Cobb, Clayton, DeKalb and Fulton counties reported single-day records for new confirmed and probable coronavirus infections within the past week, according to state data.

The surge has some parents once again asking if schools should temporarily pivot to virtual learning, a suggestion others are quick to reject. They contend that students, who’ve experienced so much disruption since the pandemic’s start, need the academic and mental health benefits that come with in-person classes.

Rachel Quartarone’s sons attend two of the three Atlanta schools that switched to online classes for the final December days of the semester. Her vaccinated 16-year-old son later tested positive for COVID-19 and has since recovered.

Quartarone said she knows many families in her southeast Atlanta neighborhood who are dealing with a recent positive diagnosis. She said it may be a good idea to for classes to begin classes virtually.

”I’m concerned they won’t even have enough staff to pull it off,” she said, of reopening schools.

APS said in a statement this week that it has developed emergency staffing plans “if needed” and that administrators are monitoring infection rates in Fulton and DeKalb counties. The Gwinnett County district said it has a plan to cover those who can’t work.

As the 2021-2022 school year began, districts faced a deluge of COVID cases that waned by late September. Since August, 14 metro Atlanta districts recorded more than 40,000 coronavirus cases, according to data posted to their websites.

School officials are bracing for this latest surge.

Clayton County Public Schools is calling on employees to get tested for COVID-19 before returning to work next week. “We must all do our part. No more excuses and hesitancy,” Superintendent Morcease Beasley said in a Twitter post.

Employees of the Decatur school system, the only Georgia district known to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for staff, must get a booster shot by the end of January.

During a recent meeting, Gwinnett County school board member Tarece Johnson asked how the district would mitigate risks that come with holiday exposures. Administrators said keeping students in school was a top priority, while encouraging those who feel sick to stay home.

Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State University School of Public Health, said it is vital to keep schools open, but to do so “in a safe and responsible way.”

Many students will return to schools where masks are not required, though Heiman contends they should be.

“Bringing exposed children or infected children together is a recipe for disaster,” he said.

The Gwinnett district previously announced it would relax its mask mandate in January if transmission levels drop. Winston Murdock, the parent of two elementary students, supports universal masking but thinks it’s unlikely case counts will plummet low enough to lift the requirement any time soon.

Even with omicron’s rapid spread, he’s more confident about returning to school in January than he was when classes began in August.

”I’m Zen about it now,” he said. “I’m not worried because we’re vaccinated.”

The holiday break has been stressful and scary for DeKalb County mother Danyle Oglesby, who spent the last few days trying to schedule a COVID-19 test. Her sixth-grade daughter woke up on Christmas Day with a fever.

”I’m even more mindful now of other people and not wanting to send her to school if she can still infect people,” she said.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters Josh Reyes and J. Scott Trubey contributed to this article.\