COVID-19 surge presents host of challenges for school chiefs

Reily McCormick, 8, holds out a sign outside the Douglas County Board of Education to protest a mask mandate as a school bus passes by on Wednesday, August 4, 2021. Douglas County Schools approved the measure that requires mask use in schools and on buses Monday during a board of education meeting. Parents expressed their frustration with the rule, saying masks have been damaging for their children because they make it difficult to breathe and to socialize with other kids. “They distract me from learning because I can’t breathe,” McCormick said. His parents allowed him to skip school in the morning to participate in the protest but said they would be dropping him off for the first day of school at the end.  “He wanted to make his voice heard,” his father Thomas McCormick said. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Combined ShapeCaption
Reily McCormick, 8, holds out a sign outside the Douglas County Board of Education to protest a mask mandate as a school bus passes by on Wednesday, August 4, 2021. Douglas County Schools approved the measure that requires mask use in schools and on buses Monday during a board of education meeting. Parents expressed their frustration with the rule, saying masks have been damaging for their children because they make it difficult to breathe and to socialize with other kids. “They distract me from learning because I can’t breathe,” McCormick said. His parents allowed him to skip school in the morning to participate in the protest but said they would be dropping him off for the first day of school at the end. “He wanted to make his voice heard,” his father Thomas McCormick said. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The leaders of some of Georgia’s largest school districts discussed the challenge of opening classrooms amid a surge in COVID-19, in a live conversation on social media with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and its readers Monday.

The virtual event covered quarantines, contact tracing, vaccination and, of course, the controversy surrounding masks.

Georgia’s child infection rate has soared since schools opened in the beginning of August. By last week, the state had the fifth-highest number of children hospitalized with the disease, according to federal health data. The reopening has inspired disagreements about safety protocols, forcing experts in education to make public health decisions.

“None of the superintendents on this panel today are physicians or epidemiologists,” said Mike Looney, the superintendent in Fulton County. “We’re school people and we’re trying to have school in the midst of a great political debate about how to best manage the process.”

ExploreThe latest on how schools are dealing with COVID-19

The event, “AJC Community Conversation: School is in Session,” was streamed on YouTube and hosted by education reporters Alia Malik and Vanessa McCray.

They asked questions and the AJC fielded others from readers.

Watch a replay of AJC Community Conversation: School is in Session

The superintendents of five metro Atlanta school districts answered them: Looney of Fulton County Schools, Lisa Herring of Atlanta Public Schools, Morcease Beasley of Clayton County Public Schools, Chris Ragsdale of the Cobb County School District, and Calvin Watts of Gwinnett County Public Schools.

Masks have been perhaps the most contentious topic. Most school districts in metro Atlanta now require them, including the Clayton schools.

“We do believe that wearing a mask is critical to the mitigation of this virus,” Beasley said.

Cobb does not require them.

Parents in Cobb clashed in mid-August, when proponents of a mask mandate were confronted by counter-demonstrators. Their competing signs reflected their positions: “science is real; masks in class” vs. “masks protect nothing.”

ExploreComplete coverage of COVID-19 in Georgia

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend universal masking in schools. But Cobb Superintendent Chris Ragsdale noted Monday that the state has not mandated masks, so Cobb merely recommends them.

“We believe that that decision rests in the parents’ hands to make that decision,” Ragsdale said.

In some cases, masks and other protocols have not sufficed. Schools in Clayton, Henry and Fulton counties have temporarily retreated online.

Gwinnett’s most significant challenge is keeping staff in school buildings. “When we see shortages of our instructional leaders, our support staff, we have to make way for substitutes,” Watts said. “What happens when that employee group also has shortages? Those are very real challenges that I know that my colleagues are grappling with as well.”

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As vaccines move from emergency use to full approval, more people are beginning to talk about mandatory vaccination. The City Schools of Decatur recently announced a proposed mandate for employees, which could be followed by one for students.

Children as young as 12 can take the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine under an emergency use authorization. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week gave that vaccine full approval for those ages 16 and up.

None of these superintendents on Monday expressed an interest in a local vaccination mandate, at least not without backing from the state.

Said Beasley: “I ask the question: well what do you do if you mandate and let’s say 20 or 30 percent of your staff refuse to get the vaccine? Are you going to shut down school? So I don’t believe in just coming up with an answer to make people feel better. I’m not going to solve a problem by creating a worse problem.”

Beasley said any vaccine mandate would have to come from the top levels of the state to be effective in schools, to give them “cover” to require the shots.