Balancing act: Georgia schools navigate handling of coronavirus

A newly launched “Parent University” in Cherokee County will offer a free program in March on mental health awareness and suicide prevention to parents of high school students. AJC FILE
A newly launched “Parent University” in Cherokee County will offer a free program in March on mental health awareness and suicide prevention to parents of high school students. AJC FILE

Schools charged with protecting 1.8 million Georgia students have had to strike a precarious balance as they react to coronavirus, on the one hand assuring parents they recognize the threat, while on the other projecting calm.

Early in the week, they were telling parents they were “carefully monitoring” the situation, taking it “very seriously” and updating contingency plans. At the same time, they were channeling the same public health advice as just about every other government agency: wash your hands — a lot. Sneeze into your elbow, stay away from sick people and, please, please don’t come anywhere near school if you’re ill.

» THE LATEST: Complete coverage of coronavirus in Georgia

Later in the week, the messaging got more aggressive Gwinnett County had “activated its Pandemic Task Force;” Fulton County announced a “cross-functional Executive Task Force.” It was only part of the “many ongoing actions the district will take to proactively combat the spread of the coronavirus,” Superintendent Mike Looney was quoted as saying.

Perhaps the best thing schools can do now is to pounce on any speck of coronavirus that gets through their front doors before an unsuspecting child contracts it, incubates it and passes it on.


CDC recommends preventive actions to help prevent the spread of respiratory diseases:

• Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.

• Stay home when you are sick.

• Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.

• Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.

• CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19. Facemasks should be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of the disease to others. The use of facemasks is also crucial for health workers and people who are taking care of someone in close settings (at home or in a health care facility).

• Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.

• If you are concerned you might have the coronavirus, call your healthcare provider before going to a hospital or clinic. In mild cases, your doctor might give you advice on how to treat symptoms at home without seeing you in person, which would reduce the number of people you expose. But in more severe cases an urgent care center or hospital would benefit from advance warning because they can prepare for your arrival. For example, they may want you to enter a special entrance, so you don’t expose others.

Source: CDC


To that end, schools are wiping down classrooms,

disinfecting buses and warning students not to share food.

By early this week, more than a dozen schools in Washington state, where the first U.S. coronavirus case surfaced in January, had been shuttered. And nearly 300 million students were missing school in 22 countries, according to news reports.

Randolph County Schools south of Columbus has upped the ante on hand sanitizer, placing more pumps throughout the buildings and purchasing disinfectant spray. Superintendent Tangela Madge is already thinking about the action her system may have to take if the disease, known as COVID-19, invades: retreat home.

All Randolph students from third grade on up are issued Chromebooks. The devices normally stay at school, but if it comes to it the kids could take them home. Madge said, though, that online coursework is no substitute for a teacher, especially with year-end standardized exams looming.

“It would be difficult if they’re out too long,” she said. “It would have an impact on testing.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued guidance for schools, saying any decisions about closure should be made in consultation with local health officials. Cancellation may be recommended for 14 days "or longer" if the health officials advise it, the agency said. "The nature of these actions (e.g., geographic scope, duration) may change as the local outbreak situation evolves."

Many metro Atlanta schools already have online contingency plans to deal with the disruption of severe weather. Not all Georgia schools are equipped to do that, though.

Bronwyn Ragan-Martin, president of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, said many school districts, like her own, don’t have computers for every student. Some parents, especially in rural Georgia, also don’t have internet service.

And if kids stay home, it means many parents will have to miss work to watch them, or else struggle through teleconferences while they frolic in the background.

“It would impact the whole community, not just the schools, if we were to shut down,” said Ragan-Martin, who runs Early County Schools north of Florida’s Panhandle. She said Tuesday that she didn’t know what the “tipping point” would have to be for schools to pull the plug: “We’re just now starting to have those conversations about ‘what ifs.’”

Though schools are projecting calm, there is a panicky mood beneath the surface. Ragan-Martin said one of her administrators canceled a trip to Atlanta after hearing the news this week about two infected people in Fulton County, Georgia’s introduction to coronavirus. It was a father who’d returned from Italy, and his teen-aged son.

The private school in Cherokee County that the boy attends, a home school program, has closed temporarily.

Forsyth County Schools, which shares a border with Cherokee, announced on its website Wednesday, in bold and all caps, that it does NOT have a confirmed infection. (Back in January, Forsyth got ahead of the public health advice, asking parents who'd traveled from China to pull their children from school for a couple weeks. The Georgia Department of Public Health then issued a statewide advisory saying students didn't need to be "excluded" from school just because a family member had been to China.)

School districts are typically asking parents to check with a doctor if their children seem sick, rather than sending them to school. Some districts have gone further, though. Habersham County Schools in northeast Georgia is requiring any student or staffer who has traveled internationally to stay home for two weeks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that step only for travelers to the highest-risk countries — China, Iran, Italy and South Korea.

But Habersham said in an email to Channel 2 Action News that it wants to be “extraordinary” with safety. “Therefore, we have decided that anyone who travels outside the U.S is at risk because of close quarters with people who are in airports, airplanes, cruise ships, etc.”

Shauna Young, the mother of a high school student in Gwinnett County, hasn’t cancelled her spring break plans for a family cruise to the Caribbean. She thinks fear about the virus is overblown, a conclusion she reached when she heard a news report about people associating coronavirus with Corona beer, a Mexican pale lager.

“At some point, you hear something so idiotic you stop listening,” she said. “That was it for me.”