Georgia schools and colleges close classrooms for coronavirus

Georgia Tech students were on the move in between classes on campus on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Georgia Tech students were on the move in between classes on campus on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Georgia’s public colleges and many of the state’s largest school districts announced one after the other Thursday that they would be shutting down campuses for a couple weeks or more, and where possible moving online, after the coronavirus claimed its first life here.

They acted after Gov. Brian Kemp held a press conference issuing a call to action to do so if they thought it was necessary.

Kemp said schools in metro Atlanta areas already dealing with confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by this virus, may want to close. Hours earlier, his office had announced the state’s first fatality due to the disease, a 67-year-old man with underlying medical conditions who had been hospitalized at Wellstar Kennestone.

“Given the rise of coronavirus cases, along with the push for more school closures, I am going to issue a call for action to community leaders, education leaders and childcare providers. If you feel it is prudent, you should consider closing day cares, schools and school districts as early as tomorrow through the next two weeks,” Kemp said.

“This is not a mandate,” he said. “They have all been freed to take action as they deem fit and I am sure you will see many of them do that.”

Georgia did.

Not long after, the University System of Georgia announced it was suspending in-person instruction at its 26 campuses through March 29, even though it had sent the opposite message to students just hours earlier. Georgia is now falling in line with other states where more than 200 colleges and universities —double the number from the day before — have shuttered, moving students online and, in some cases, out of their dorms.

Georgia college students, many of whom were on break Thursday, began the day expecting to return to class Monday, only to find they have two weeks ahead of them with either no classes or with online substitutes.

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They are encouraged not to return to campus during that time. Students now on campus are being asked to leave Friday. “At this time, students are not being asked to move out of their dorms for the remainder of the semester. For students who are unable to leave campus, institutions have been asked to develop plans to safely accommodate them on campus,” said University System spokesman Aaron Diamant.

In online petitions, college students across Georgia were pushing for virtual classes to limit exposure to infection, so the about-face was welcomed.

“I think it’s a good starting point,” University of Georgia senior Nick Harris said. He suspects it will take more than two weeks to contain the coronavirus and said he hopes the university is prepared to teach virtual classes over a longer period. “I think we will have to finish the semester through the online system,” he said.

Students at Georgia State, many of whom live with parents in the suburbs, got a lifestyle bonus from the shutdown: a break from grueling commutes.

Luysa Gonzalez, 19, a political science major, said she worries about catching the coronavirus, and thinks it will be safer taking courses online at home in Kennesaw. She already takes a couple online courses anyway, and now, she won’t have to drive an hour or more each way, four days a week. “It doesn’t affect me too, too much,” she said of the decision.

Parents of younger children will be more affected, especially if they are employed in jobs that do not allow them to work from home.

The effect on working parents may explain some of the reluctance to shut down until now. On Thursday morning, City Schools of Decatur alerted parents that school would not be closing but that large gatherings would be limited. By late afternoon, the message had changed significantly: not only would school be closed, but it would be closed “indefinitely.”

Other districts were sending out similar messages. For instance, Cobb County is closing Monday “until further notice;” Atlanta Public Schools is closing for at least a couple weeks. Other districts, such as Douglas, Barrow, Fulton and Rome also announced closures.

Annsley Klehr, who has children in first and fifth grade at Mary Lin Elementary in Atlanta, would ordinarily have no problem watching her kids, since she is retired. But she recently had surgery and would have liked more time to recover.

Still, with everyone home in the neighborhoods, she said, there could be a side benefit: “I hope it brings communities together,” she said.

Tracey Carter, whose daughter attends sixth grade at DeKalb Elementary School of the Arts, said she prayed leaders would “do the right thing” and keep children home. She worried about the potential of the virus spreading from schools to elderly people or those with chronic health conditions, two categories most susceptible to serious consequences from COVID-19. Younger people generally have been experiencing only minor symptoms.

Many school districts are saying they will continue teaching online.

“Schools have been planning for potential closures for several weeks now,” Georgia Department of Education spokeswoman Meghan Frick said.

Gwinnett, Georgia’s largest school district, will start digital learning days next week and decide plans for the second week later.

At least one rural district is trying to stay open.

Allen B. Fort, superintendent of small 172-student Taliaferro County school district, said, “Closing school is our very last option. We are going to hold out as long as we can concerning canceling school,” he said Thursday. “The board and I are meeting tonight to discuss this situation and lay out what we believe we need to do and what the community needs and expects of us.”

He said discussions about the virus have consumed his days. Unlike big metro areas, where internet access is reliable, rural homes aren’t always connected, making online education a challenge.

Students have been issued devices that they could take home if it comes to that, he said, but it’s unclear if they can use them online. The district is surveying families now to find out how many lack access, he said. For those that don’t have it, teachers are preparing packets of paper materials.

“We will deliver it to them if needed,” he said. “Yes, we are that small.”

There are many unknowns in a situation that Kemp descried as unprecedented in Georgia. Some K-12 districts have spring break in April, meaning their students will be out of class for three weeks, which could hurt their performance on the state Milestones exams in late spring.

Will the state consider forgoing them?

Frick, the education agency spokeswoman, said safety is the priority right now. Tests are mandated by law, but, she said, the state will make policy “adjustments” if necessary.

“The specific adjustments will depend on the course of events,” she said.

Staff writers Vanessa McCray and Arlinda Broady contributed to this article