Schools in bucolic North Georgia town opened Friday, masks optional

July 31, 2020 Jefferson - Jefferson Elementary School staff greet students for their first day back to school in Jefferson on Friday, July 31, 2020. More than 1,500 students and 100-plus staff and faculty in Jefferson are scheduled to resume classes in-person beginning this Friday. The schoolÕs first day is one of the earliest returns to school in the U.S., following the months of quarantine and school modifications due to COVID-19. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
July 31, 2020 Jefferson - Jefferson Elementary School staff greet students for their first day back to school in Jefferson on Friday, July 31, 2020. More than 1,500 students and 100-plus staff and faculty in Jefferson are scheduled to resume classes in-person beginning this Friday. The schoolÕs first day is one of the earliest returns to school in the U.S., following the months of quarantine and school modifications due to COVID-19. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

When schools opened Friday in Jefferson, a picturesque town of around 12,000 residents just north of Gwinnett County, students carried with them the usual books, lunches and school supplies.

What they didn’t have — at least some of them — has become the source of a national political divide: masks.

“I think masks shouldn’t be mandatory,” said Gary Gunter, whose granddaughter attends Jefferson Elementary School. “The science has already proven that children are not spreaders. I have to trust the science.”

Susan Patterson disagrees. If the school system, first public school district to open in the state for the 2020-2021 academic year, would embrace a mandatory mask policy, it would promote safety and make it easier to get extracurricular activities up and running.

“We want kids to wear masks,” said Patterson, whose daughter Hope and her friend Rylee Meadows, both Jefferson High School students, created a Change.org page to push for mandatory masks. “We want sports back, we want the arts back. And the best way to do it is to social distance and keep your masks on.”

As school systems across Georgia get ready to begin the new academic year, they are confronted with a pandemic that is as out of control today as it was when students were sent home in March to learn virtually. Infections are surging in the state and businesses that had reopened in May are considering closing again to avoid the risk of getting patrons sick.

On Friday, the Georgia Department of Health reported 186,352 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the state, along with 18,689 hospitalizations and 3,414 ICU admissions. So far, 3,752 have died from the diseases in Georgia.

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday released a report that some 260 cases of the coronavirus have been tied to attendees and staff at a North Georgia children’s camp in June.

Dennis Attick, an assistant dean of the school of education at Clayton State University, said that districts really need to think through how they proceed. If much smaller and better-funded organizations such as major league baseball teams have struggled to keep people safe, imagine the challenge of protecting thousands of kids and faculty whose comings and goings are much more difficult to control.

“I think we relaxed a little bit after the numbers declined after we went into the hard shutdown,” said Dennis Attick, assistant dean of the school of education at Clayton State University, “but you can see as the rates have surged that things are not going well. Clearly we don’t have a handle on it and that poses a real problem for schools.”

That concern has led most metro Atlanta schools to delay the first day of classes and to opt for an all-virtual beginning of the new academic year. Schools in Cherokee and Paulding counties will begin on Monday with a mix of virtual and in-class instruction, followed by Marietta City Schools on Tuesday, which opens with an all-virtual classroom plan.

In Jefferson, which is in Jackson County, youngsters bounced as they walked to school for a new year. Some wore masks while others didn’t as the morning Georgia sunshine beat down on their little faces.

While masks were an option for students, teachers and faculty were mandated to have their faces covered. Others, such as crossing guards directing traffic that quickly became choked as parents drove their young ones to school, had a mixture of those whose faces were covered and those who were not.

Leaders at Jefferson City Schools point out that they offer a virtual program for students and parents who are uncomfortable with being in the classroom or in a building where masks are not mandatory.

“Our system and school leaders have worked countless hours over the last several months devising specific protocols and procedures for the safe return of students and staff,” Associate Superintendent Donna McMullan said in an email.

The school system has more than 1,500 students and more than 100 staff members.

Katie Ebel said she was happy school had resumed and was supportive of letting parents and students make their own decision about whether to wear a mask. Most important to her was allowing her first-grade daughter, Ava, to socialize with other youngsters and to lessen the anxiety she was feeling while learning virtually.

“My daughter was excited to go back,” she said. “Children need this. They need the interaction. They need classroom time.”