New semester brings old dilemma: How to restart Georgia schools safely

Kelley Gaines, second from right, on a recent family trip. The longtime Hart County engineering and video production teacher loved her students and was a fan of space exploration, said her husband, Greg (left). CONTRIBUTED
Kelley Gaines, second from right, on a recent family trip. The longtime Hart County engineering and video production teacher loved her students and was a fan of space exploration, said her husband, Greg (left). CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

One of the most painful memories for Greg Gaines is the moment last month when his 15-year-old daughter placed her hand on the glass of the hospital room where her mother lay in isolation.

“She said ‘God, please heal my mommy, but if you need to take her, I also understand that too.’ That tore me up,” he said Monday.

Gaines is a teacher in Hart County, and so was his wife, Kelley, 47.

Gaines doesn’t know where she caught COVID-19 but said he does know when the transmission rates are too high for school. In their community, he said, it’s when the cars wrap around the local drugstore where people go for testing, the scene he saw Sunday when he drove by.

Hart County has delayed opening schools until later this month. So have several other small school districts around the state, such as Long and Ware counties.

It’s a dilemma many districts are facing, even those in communities supporting classroom instruction. Some districts that started the school year with students attending classes in person are having to revise those plans as COVID numbers in their communities surge.

Children generally escape infection unscathed, but little is known about any lingering consequences. High community spread and the possibility of the virus getting into schools have led to concerns about reopening, but some metro Atlanta schools that have been closed since March are now forging ahead with plans to open later this month. DeKalb County is one of them.

Parents and their children line along 10th Street N.E. near Piedmont Park on  Sunday, December 6, 2020, during a rally calling for the safe, immediate opening of Atlanta and DeKalb County schools. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Parents and their children line along 10th Street N.E. near Piedmont Park on Sunday, December 6, 2020, during a rally calling for the safe, immediate opening of Atlanta and DeKalb County schools. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Teachers there protested over the holidays to remain online, as large groups of parents in the district had long lobbied DeKalb to open. The district is planning safety measures, such as a mandate to wear masks.

Masks are mandatory in Cobb County, where a teacher died last month and other school employees became ill enough for intensive care. That district is also planning to reopen.

Superintendent Chris Ragsdale said in a Christmas Day email that deceased teacher Patrick Key had a “positive impact” on Hendricks Elementary School students. Ragsdale also said he was confident his district would “beat” COVID-19.

ExploreAJC Get Schooled: As schools reopen amid COVID surge, teacher fears increase

Employees at Stockbridge Elementary School in Henry County have felt wary about returning ever since one of their own died last week, said Kira Cooper, a teacher there.

She said kindergarten teacher LuAnn Burns was known for her generosity, loaning out her car and even letting a down-on-her-heels teacher stay for a while at her home. Burns and her husband spent countless hours printing and laminating resources for other teachers.

On Monday, teachers were supposed to enter Stockbridge Elementary for training, but they refused. Instead, after holding a memorial for Burns, they set up chairs and laptops in the parking lot. They want the school district to postpone reopening.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen next, but we do know that we don’t feel safe going into schools and we want something done to ensure our safety,” Cooper said.

DeKalb school district teacher Laurie Law holds up a sign during a protest in front of the DeKalb school district offices along Mountain Industrial Blvd in Stone MountainTusday December 29, 2020. King says she has two children that teach in the DeKalb school district. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
DeKalb school district teacher Laurie Law holds up a sign during a protest in front of the DeKalb school district offices along Mountain Industrial Blvd in Stone MountainTusday December 29, 2020. King says she has two children that teach in the DeKalb school district. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Gaines, the Hart County widower, said he doesn’t know where he and his wife were infected. A doctor told them it likely occurred on the Saturday after the last day of school before Thanksgiving. That makes no sense, Gaines said, because he and his wife stayed home that day, preparing for a brief trip to Texas that Sunday to buy a new truck. They stayed in a hotel on the trip.

He started worrying when he was unable to detect the new-car smell that his 10-year-old daughter could.

Jennifer Saunders, president of the Georgia Federation of Public Service Employees, a relatively small group representing teachers in Atlanta and Clayton and Henry counties, is helping the teachers at Stockbridge negotiate with the administration about the reopening plans.

Saunders, who works as a media specialist support administrator for Atlanta Public Schools, said there are no easy decisions here. Atlanta is making its own reopening plans, squeezed between groups of parents who are for or against the idea. Teachers, too, are torn, she said.

“There are some people who are like, ‘Yes, I’m going back. I can’t wait!’ And there are others who are anxious,” Saunders said. She imagines it is a difficult time for leaders right now.

“I’m so thankful that I don’t have to make the decision,” she said. “Nobody really knows how to move forward from this.”

Rick Townsend, the superintendent in Pickens County, is among the local leaders who decided to postpone in-person schooling. Local health officials pointed to overwhelmed ICU units, and he wondered whether some of his schools would be staffed well enough to open, given the number of teachers in quarantine or isolation.

He’s not sure when he’ll re-open since the health experts told him to expect things to get worse later this month.

“We want to see what the numbers are before we commit to anything,” he said.

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