COVID-19 surge, lack of teachers forces Cherokee schools to close classrooms

With more than 400 teachers and staff members unable to work because they are sick with COVID-19 or in quarantine following an exposure, the Cherokee County School District will cancel in-person learning for all of its 42,200 students next week.

Superintendent Dr. Brian Hightower said Friday that the district will close classrooms to students starting Monday, Jan. 11 and tentatively plans to reopen classrooms on Tuesday, Jan. 19. Hightower said COVID-19 cases have climbed not only in Cherokee, but across the state and country.

“Health experts are voicing concerns that a new COVID-19 strain now circulating in our nation will spread faster among everyone, including school-age children,” he said. “Our hospitals are full.”

As of Friday, 441 full-time staff members are “absent due to COVID-19 positive cases and precautionary quarantines, with more test results pending,” Hightower said. He also said the district’s pool of available substitute teachers is “similarly weakened.” The Cherokee school district has about 4,800 employees, including 2,774 teachers.

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“We understand this closing creates hardships, but it is a necessary measure which gives our students, families and employees the next 10 calendar days to get healthier,” Hightower said of the closure.

As of Friday, CCSD has 147 active student and 92 staff COVID-19 cases. In December, the district closed River Ridge, Sequoyah and Woodstock high and Arnold Mill Elementary schools due to the rise in coronavirus cases.

As of Friday, Cherokee County had 14,306 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 132 deaths and 863 hospitalizations, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. The county’s two-week case number per 100,000 people was 887, more than eight times higher than what public health experts consider high community spread. That number was 642 on Christmas Day and 453 on Dec. 11.

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Fulton County schools, which began the second semester with remote-only learning, announced Friday it will keep classrooms closed until at least Jan. 19. For the week of Jan. 4-7, Fulton County had 142 new student and staff cases and 22 students and staff in quarantine.

As of Thursday, Gwinnett County Public Schools, the largest district in the state, had 162 new staff and 920 active student cases. The district offers both remote and in-person learning to its students. Dekalb County Schools plan to begin offering in-person learning on Jan. 19, and Atlanta Public Schools aims to reopen classrooms to some students starting Jan. 25. Clayton County Public Schools remain closed to in-person learning.

As of late Friday afternoon, the Cobb County School District, the second largest in Georgia, has not updated its COVID-19 case numbers since Dec. 18, according to its website. Cobb schools has had 1,570 COVID-19 cases reported since July 1. The district does not list the number of cases by school if they are less than 10. Cobb schools also does not indicate if its cases originate with students or staff or if they are active.

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Next week, Cherokee students will log onto the district’s virtual learning platform for their lessons, and teachers and staff will report to their work sites to educate students. Extracurricular activities will continue with extra safety measures in place. The district’s School Nutrition Department will provide a week’s worth of to-go meals from 10 a.m. to noon in bus pick-up and drop-off areas at schools.

Cherokee County was among the first districts across metro Atlanta to reopen classrooms following the initial March shutdowns. The district drew national attention when photos of unmasked students jammed together went viral online — and when cases quickly rose.

Many in the community have called on the district to mandate masks or face coverings. Instead of implementing a requirement, the district changed its policy to state mask usage was “expected” when students can’t socially distance. It also launched two contests to award prizes to students who created posters and videos that promote mask-wearing. Those entries are due Monday.