Schools, Colleges Debate Course as Georgia Virus Cases Fall
By JEFF AMY
August 21, 2020
A student, wearing a face mask, enters the school book store at the University of Georgia, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. in Athens, Ga. (Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald via AP)
ATLANTA (AP) — A Georgia school district that had switched to all-online classes abruptly reversed course on Friday for most of its schools, while officials at one state university nervously eyed rising numbers of COVID-19 infections among students.
The number of new coronavirus infections and patients hospitalized with the respiratory illness continued to fall, but newly reported deaths remain high, as Georgia continues to tally the toll from a late July infection peak.
With 94 net new deaths reported Friday, Georgia stands at 4,998 deaths from the illness. Deaths typically trail new infections, but Georgia has averaged 61 deaths a day over the last week.
Hospitalizations from the illness stood at about 2,400 on Friday, down a third from their July peak. The seven-day average of newly confirmed infections was just above 2,500, also down a third.
Georgia continues to have the nation’s highest rate of new cases per 100,000 people over the last two weeks, according to figures kept by The Associated Press. The share of positive tests continues to fall slowly, standing at 10.3% on Friday, still more than twice the 5% rate that experts say is needed to signal that the outbreak is under control.
Five Georgia counties remain in the top 30 nationwide for the fastest rate of spread, all with more than 1% of residents being infected in the last two weeks. The county with the fastest spread is Appling, followed by Chattahoochee, Ben Hill, Jefferson Davis and Bleckley.
Meanwhile, more cities and counties continue to adopt ordinances requiring masks in public places after Gov. Brian Kemp stopped disputing their ability to do so.
In Floyd County, interim Superintendent Glenn White had announced Thursday that all students would learn remotely through Sept. 8, but in a Friday morning school board work session, district leaders said in-person classes would resume Monday at all but three of the district’s 17 schools.
Thursday, the county schools had 480 students and 34 employees in quarantine, the Rome News-Tribune reported. The system has six students and three staff members who have actually tested positive for the coronavirus.
White and school board members voiced support for designating teachers as critical infrastructure workers, allowing those who have been exposed to COVID-19 but show no symptoms to return to work. Floyd County had taken that move, but the district reversed itself on Wednesday after a lawyer for Gov. Brian Kemp said the district had no authority to do so. Kemp is considering whether to follow U.S. Department of Homeland Security advice to give teachers the designation, as The Associated Press first reported Thursday.
“And that’s the only way we’re going to be able to run school is to do that,” White told WSB-TV.
In a poll taken last week by the Georgia School Superintendents Association, 139 superintendents favored the move, while 12 opposed it.
Teacher groups are uniformly opposed to the critical infrastructure worker designation.
Some districts that had started the year with virtual instruction are preparing to start face-to-face instruction. Georgia’s largest district, 180,000-student Gwinnett County, says it will bring back students in kindergarten and grades 1, 6 and 9, as well as special education students, on Wednesday. More grades would be phased in until there are in-person classes available for all by Sept. 9. Gwinnett officials say about half the parents have opted for full-time remote instruction.
Meanwhile, officials at Georgia College and State University are warning students that infections are rising sharply among its 7,000 students. By Friday, the Milledgeville school had reported 169 new infections among students in four days.
“Initial contact tracing seems to suggest that the virus spread is happening through off-campus contact and was likely the result of off-campus student gatherings and parties,” Vice President for Student Affairs Shawn Brooks wrote in an email to students obtained by The Union-Recorder of Milledgeville.
Mike Crews, who lives in a neighborhood near campus, said he’s seen more partying to start this year than in the previous four years he’s lived there. Crews said few revelers wear masks or stay distant.
The college on Friday said it wouldn’t participate in any fall sports, although its conference is allowing limited competition in cross country, tennis and golf.
The Milledgeville City Council joined the trend of localities requiring masks by passing such an ordinance in a special meeting Friday, but Baldwin County commissioners rejected a countywide ordinance on a 3-2 vote. Students are already supposed to be wearing masks on campus.