Beth Cassidy worries about the start of the school year, when her daughter will enter a kindergarten classroom where masks aren’t required.

Virtual or private school isn’t an option for the Fulton County family, and Cassidy, a registered nurse, is concerned about the renewed spread of the coronavirus.

In neighboring Gwinnett County, though, Steve Perkins, a father of two young students, feels more comfortable sending them to school than he did a year ago now that he and his wife and their parents are vaccinated. He also thinks masks should be required ― a mandate the school district made a few days ago.

Across metro Atlanta, parents and teachers are greeting the back-to-school season with trepidation and optimism. The new year arrives as a highly infectious COVID-19 variant drives case counts higher in a state where less than half of the eligible population is fully vaccinated, and as public health officials offer evolving advice.

Many of Georgia’s largest school districts — Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties and Atlanta — start classes this week. Some will maintain safety protocols from last year while others relax rules, the look varying by district.

Most metro Atlanta districts aim to maintain physical distancing when possible. Some are encouraging virtual staff and parent meetings. But as more students learn face-to-face, fewer teachers will simultaneously be leading online and in-person classes.

Families walk around to the different tents during the Family Fun Day at John Lewis Invictus Academy Saturday, July 24, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

While most districts reopened to varying degrees last year, thousands of children are about to enter a classroom for the first time since the pandemic shuttered schoolhouses in March 2020.

“There’s going to be a lot more kids,” said Cliff Jones, chief academic officer for Fulton County Schools.

Nearly half of Fulton’s 90,000 students were still learning online as of May. When classes resume there Aug. 9, the default option will be in-person. A new virtual academy will cap enrollment at 1,500.

Fulton plans to require masks on buses but not in buildings. Jones said many Fulton schools will still have one-way directional signs posted in hallways. Also remaining: reminders for students to practice social distancing and wash their hands.

Schools will focus on relationships, Jones said, as they “share in the joy of being back together while acknowledging that some of the kids and adults are nervous.”

Some of the state’s educators are “angry and scared,” said Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers. ”Some are anxious to go back, but not under these conditions.”

Vaccinations, masks

Metro Atlanta’s largest school districts aren’t requiring employees to be vaccinated, though they have encouraged it. Several, including Atlanta and Fulton, planned to offer shots during back-to-school events.

Even vaccinated people, including state school Superintendent Richard Woods, have had so-called “breakthrough” infections. Vaccines are currently authorized only for children 12 and up, covering high school and part of middle school. But in that eligible age range, fewer than 1 in 5 kids in Georgia has been vaccinated.

That’s lower than the national average, which Dr. Tina Q. Tran, a member of the board of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, said is so low as to again require all of the precautions schools took — or should have taken — last year, including the use of masks.

“I really do think that in order to protect students who are going to be attending in-person school, you really need to have mask mandates in place,” Tran, a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, told reporters Tuesday.

Later in the day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which had been recommending that only non-vaccinated people in schools wear masks, revised its guidance to match what pediatricians had been saying: everyone in schools should mask up.

The updated CDC advice, which shifted twice in July, prompted superintendents to rethink rules as the first day of school drew near. Gwinnett County Public Schools dropped its mask mandate in June only to reinstate it Wednesday.

Even before the most-recent CDC change, Fulton’s superintendent, Mike Looney told the school board that guidance from the CDC and other health organizations changes frequently, conflicts at times and is confusing.

Mask rules

Many districts around Georgia never required masks and will not when school resumes.

In the metro area, four of the state’s largest districts — Atlanta, Clayton, DeKalb and Gwinnett — will require them. The neighboring districts of Cobb, Fulton and Marietta required masks last year but as of Wednesday said they won’t this year.

Atlanta Public Schools cited low vaccination rates and the growing spread of the virus as reasons to mandate masks indoors. About 18% of Atlanta students who are eligible for the shots are fully vaccinated, while about 58% of employees are or plan to be, according to APS.

Sara Totonchi, whose son will be in first grade, appreciates the decision.

“I know I was not alone in breathing a huge sigh of relief,” said Totonchi, who was among a group of parents and staff who pushed APS last year for more safety measures and transparency in decision-making. “It feels more urgent than ever.”

But Atlanta parent Lauren Strenke said it’s not easy for every child to wear a mask because of sensory issues and speech and language delays. She’s “slightly relieved” children won’t have to wear a mask outside, but said the decision should be left to parents.

“Children have little to no risk. APS teachers/staff have had every opportunity to get the vaccine to protect themselves should they want one. That goes for every APS parent also,” she wrote in a recent comment on the district’s Facebook page.

Strenke said the CDC’s updated recommendation didn’t change her opinion.

Educators clap for Kim Sarfaty, a special education pre-K teacher at Chestatee Elementary School, at orientation for new Forsyth County teachers at Denmark High School in Alpharetta, Georgia, on Tuesday, July 27, 2021. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright

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Credit: Rebecca Wright

Differing stances on safety measures are surfacing elsewhere.

Forsyth County Schools plans to begin the year “with normal operations.” Masks will be optional and there will be no contact tracing, quarantining of “healthy” kids or reporting of daily positive cases on the district website.

Natalie Bucsko, a parent there, is alarmed. Her three oldest daughters are vaccinated. But her youngest, who will be in first grade, isn’t eligible.

“They are acting as if the pandemic is fully over, no one’s getting sick anymore, and they’re just operating as if nothing ever happened,” she said.

In Fulton County and Marietta, superintendents cited successful summer programs, where masks were not required and case numbers were low, as one reason they plan to eliminate the mandate for the upcoming year.

Looney told board members on July 22 the Fulton district will monitor local case numbers and could reinstate mask rules at individual schools if deemed necessary. On Tuesday, after the CDC update, Fulton said it will review the new information and “notify our community if changes are warranted.”

The DeKalb County School District will require masks in buildings, to the dismay of Seth Schreiber whose daughters are entering seventh and 10th grades. They returned to their middle and high schools in March, when DeKalb began reopening buildings.

“It’s great that they are back in-person … and thank goodness that this virtual thing is behind us. But why are (they) still trying to put these mandates on us for masks?” he said. “Let’s get back to normal.”

Yet Carla Moore is confident about sending her son and daughter to their sixth grade and kindergarten classrooms because of DeKalb’s mandate.

She has already packed their book bags with hand sanitizer and has been reminding them to wear their masks.

“I know that it’s going to be reiterated that you keep your mask on,” she said during a recent meeting at her daughter’s school for a visit by U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. She said later that the school’s upgraded air conditioning and filtration system also made her feel better.

Cardona’s visit was timed to the release of $1.4 billion in federal relief aid to Georgia schools, the latest payment from one of several rounds of such funding. The most recent round, known as the American Rescue Plan, channeled a total of $4.2 billion to schools here.

The state’s plan, submitted to the U.S. Department of Education and approved in July, calls for a “return to fully in-person instruction” for the upcoming school year, according to a federal summary.

Schools are “starting from a much better place” this year than last, said Tracey Pendley, who served as Georgia’s Teacher of the Year the last two years.

“There’s just less uncertainty,” she said. “There’s not as much fear and concern over how we are going to teach, how we are going to reach all students.”

Ryan Lisbon also is looking forward to the year. He’s an elementary teacher at one of three Kindezi schools within APS and a parent of two who have been learning online since the pandemic’s start.

His children, in middle and high school, “are ready to go back.” And as a teacher, he’s focused on making sure that once his students are together again they feel comfortable and like they belong.

“It feels like we are headed to some sense of normalcy — not like it was before the pandemic,” he said.

Staff writer Scott Trubey contributed to this report.

First day of school

Atlanta: Thursday

Clayton: Monday

Cobb: Monday

DeKalb: Monday

Fulton: Aug. 9

Gwinnett: Wednesday