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COVID-19 and schools: Q-and-A with Hall, Gainesville leaders ahead of 2021-22 school year
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South Hall Middle School custodian Mary Buffington pushes her cart to another part of the school Tuesday, July 27, 2021, as the school gets set for the upcoming new school year. - photo by Scott Rogers

The school year is fast approaching at the same time coronavirus cases are again surging in Hall County.

In recent weeks, the coronavirus positivity rate has increased rapidly to 8.6% as of July 27, according to data from the Georgia Department of Public Health. It had dropped below 2% earlier in the year following vaccination efforts. Now, with the delta variant likely driving the recent surge, local health officials are warning of this year turning into a “2020 on steroids.” Health officials continue to urge vaccination as the best weapon against COVID-19. In Hall County, 36% are fully vaccinated. The state is at 40%.

In a live webinar July 22 involving local health experts and school officials, Dr. Zachary Taylor, District 2 director of public health, noted that there has been a significant increase in COVID-19 cases in younger people. Vaccines are available to those 12 and older.

Gainesville City Schools released its Comprehensive Health Guide at its most recent board meeting on July 19. Hall County updated its guidelines on July 23, though the district has not yet finalized its quarantine protocols. It said it “will continue to study this situation and make a firm decision prior to the first day of school.”

Both school districts provided answers to the following questions regarding their safety guidelines but noted guidelines may change and flexibility would be required again this year. Hall starts school Aug. 6 and Gainesville will stagger its start with Pre-K to second, sixth, ninth and 10th grades starting start Aug. 11 and the remaining students starting Aug. 13.

What is the official mask policy? 

As of July 27, masks are optional in Hall County Schools, according to Stan Lewis, director of communications and athletics. Hall County’s Health Services Coordinator Andrea Williamson-English said in the recent webinar that masks would be encouraged. In Gainesville, masks also are encouraged. The system noted that depending on school or community spread, it may periodically require masks. 

The CDC updated its guidelines Tuesday, July 27, to recommend that even vaccinated people wear masks indoors in areas with “substantial” or “high” transmission. Gainesville Superintendent Jeremy Williams said the district is still sticking with its current guidelines, though they are “always subject to change.” Craig Herrington, board chair for Hall County Schools, said the board had not had a chance to review the new CDC guidelines and thus did not comment on how they might affect the district’s guidelines. 

Why are masks optional? 

On July 9, the CDC updated its science brief on K-12 school transmission. 

“Although outbreaks in schools can occur, multiple studies have shown that transmission within school settings is typically lower than – or at least similar to – levels of community transmission, when prevention strategies are in place in schools,” the brief reads. 

“School transmission data (locally and nationally) indicate a much lower rate than once perceived,” Williams said. 

Many schools were requiring masks last school year, including Hall and Gainesville. Now that masks will not be required as a mitigation strategy, it is unclear how this may affect transmission in schools. Williams said the system will be closely monitoring new transmission data. 

“That’s one of the many reasons why we keep telling people that masks may be required depending on the spread,” he said.

What mitigation practices will be used? 

Much as last year, handwashing, covering coughs/sneezes and social distancing to the greatest extent possible will be used along with making hand sanitizer readily available. Guidelines call for 3 feet of social distancing as the minimum, and 6 feet is encouraged. Classrooms will be regularly cleaned and high-touch surfaces wiped down frequently. Mitigation measures are decided at the district level.

Will students and/teachers be required to be vaccinated? 

Neither public school system will require vaccination against COVID-19.

What percentage of faculty and staff are vaccinated? 

About 50% in Hall County, 60-65% in Gainesville.

What are the quarantine protocols for those exposed to COVID-19? 

In Gainesville City Schools, those vaccinated will not have to quarantine unless they show symptoms but those unvaccinated will. Due to an executive order from Gov. Brian Kemp’s office, the school system cannot use the Georgia Registry of Immunizations Transactions and Services to track COVID-19 vaccination as it does other vaccinations in the school system, Williams said. “We have no other choice at this time than to base it on an honor system,” Williams said of checking vaccination status to determine necessary quarantine. Hall County Schools announced July 28 that it also would not require vaccinated individuals to quarantine nor those who have had COVID-19 in the past 90 days. Otherwise, those with direct exposure will be quarantined for 10 days or may test on Day 5 and return on Day 8 with a negative test. The system will not require anyone to share their vaccination status.

What procedures are in place for contact tracing? 

Both systems will follow the same procedures as last year. In Hall, once a positive case is identified, school officials will do contact tracing. Direct contacts will be notified by district contact tracers and/or the local Department of Public Health.

The Georgia Department of Public Health uses a traffic light classification system for the positivity rate in each county. Green means less than 5%, yellow means between 5% and 10% and red means greater than 10%. As of July 27, Hall County is in the “yellow,” with an 8.6% positivity rate. What precautions will the school system take if cases increase above 10% into the “red” zone? 

Hall County Schools will consult with local health officials before making a decision, Lewis said. In Gainesville, Williams said the system successfully reopened schools when rates were much higher, and the positivity rate in Hall County decreased in August and September when schools opened as well as in January-February following the winter break. Of the more than 3,000 students Gainesville quarantined, fewer than 1% became positive, he said.

How likely are protocols to change before the school year begins and even shortly after it begins? 

Both public school systems are prepared to continue monitoring data and be flexible. “It is always a moving target based on school or community spread,” Williams said. 

What about sports and other extracurriculars? What precautions will be taken? Will there be limits on attendance for games or concerts, etc.? 

Neither Hall County nor Gainesville will be limiting attendance at school events at this time. Gainesville did note that outdoor practices and performances will be encouraged. 

What precautions are in place for upcoming open houses? Both Gainesville and Hall County will be staggering the number of people at the schools for open house. In Hall County, families will attend open house alphabetically by last name “to reduce the number of outside individuals in our buildings.” In Gainesville, open house is scheduled over three days instead of three hours as in the past to limit interaction. 

Will absence policies change allowing students not feeling well to complete assignments at home or have more excused absences? 

In Hall County, students who are ill or absent due to COVID-19 will be allowed to do make-up work. In Gainesville, students with COVID-19 symptoms will be sent home and receive an excused absence for the following day. “If students return following the one day of excused absence, teachers may assume that the illness was not suspected COVID-19 and normal activities should continue provided the student does not exhibit additional symptoms,” the guidelines say. “When in doubt,” Superintendent Williams said, “keep the child home and communicate with the school.” 

What are the virtual options this year? 

Hall County students can apply for a new virtual program of choice for third to 12th grade, if they meet specific criteria. The district is leaving applications open and reviewing each one on a case-by-case basis, Lewis said. In Gainesville, the deadline for its virtual school has passed. 

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South Hall Middle School custodian Henry Buffington wipes down cafeteria tables Tuesday, July 27, 2021, as the school gets set for the upcoming new school year. - photo by Scott Rogers
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