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For Hall, Gainesville schools, ‘nothing has been more polarizing than COVID’
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Gainesville Middle School students wear masks while walking to their next class Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. - photo by Scott Rogers

If he had it to do over again knowing what he knows now, Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield says he wouldn’t have sent children home in March.

The harm caused by not having students in Hall and Gainesville schools weighs heavily for leaders serving students, many in poverty, he said. At the same time, being in school poses risks for students, their families and faculty and staff.

The U.S. is approaching its one year anniversary of the beginning of business and school shutdowns meant to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, a virus that health experts and the American people largely learned about together.

Since March 2020, when schools across the country shifted in a weekend to all online courses, federal and local health officials, governments and school districts have continued to update their policies as they’ve learned more about the virus.

Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say virus transmissions in schools are low, and the agency makes the case for a return to in-person school.

But there are still some school staff and others who say schools should remain closed until a vaccine is widely administered for staff, especially when considering teachers, bus drivers and others who may be at higher risk for complications from the virus.

How teachers are affected

Steven Wang, a 52-year-old former economics and history teacher at North Hall High School, is among them. 

Wang said he could see the pressure mounting over the summer to return to in-person school and began planning to teach online only. Wang said he and his wife, who was also a teacher, were initially granted that ability by the Hall County School District.

But as the start of the fall semester came closer, he said he and his wife were told they’d need to teach face-to-face classes, at least part of the day. That, Wang said, is when he decided he’d have to retire early. 

Wang said he had a virus that put him in the hospital with congenital heart failure in fall 2019, and given his condition, he wasn’t comfortable remaining in a classroom with 20 to 30 students for several classes per day.

Wang said districts are risking lives by being back in the classroom and should hold off until the COVID-19 vaccine is widely administered, at least for staff. 

“Our best calculation was that if the infection warranted being out of school last spring, and online, that in the fall, it would as well,” he said. “I mean, basically, the argument is it's not going to kill enough people. It's not going to disable enough people to counterbalance the benefits of being face to face. … I am completely in earnest that, as a parent, an educator, a citizen and a taxpayer, I do not believe the policies followed this school year have been or are ‘safe,’  for students or for staff.”

Wang said he has also placed his 12-year-old son in an online charter school based in Duluth, and is happy with the curriculum he’s been receiving.

He added that as a more contagious mutation of COVID-19 continues to spread, the danger to the community will increase.

Teachers and staff across the state and country who are in higher-risk categories or are caretakers of people in those groups have valid concerns, but there are also valid concerns in remaining out of in-person classes for too long, said Margaret Ciccarelli, director of legislative affairs for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, a state advocacy group for students and educators.

The best answer to the question, “What is the solution?” is that there is no perfect solution, Ciccarelli said.

“It has been an evolution from last March and the beginning of the shutdown until now … and it will continue to evolve over time,” she said.

Ciccarelli did say, however, that PAGE’s survey data shows teachers who have a “significant comorbidity” or live with someone who does are more concerned about returning to classrooms than those who don’t. She said that means it’s important for districts to “do the hard work” of making accommodations for those staff members, as well as ensure they are open and transparent with their data reporting.

She said accommodations for concerned staff could include pairing teachers with comorbidities with families who prefer online education, giving at-risk staff members jobs in the central office or assigning them other roles that will allow them to teach virtually.

But, she added, “it’s easier said than done, and we understand that it poses a significant challenge for the districts,” Ciccarelli said. “It’s very hard for these districts to pull off. … And even if they’re significantly staffed on site, because of close contact, they’re going to have a continuous rotation of staff absences.”

Both Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield and Gainesville Schools Superintendent Jeremy Williams have told The Times they are aware that some of their staff have chosen to leave the district out of concern for their health or the health of their families. They both also maintain that virus spread is actually higher when students are at home with less structure and precautionary measures.

Considering concerns, effects on students

Schofield said he couldn’t specifically speak to Wang’s claims, but he did say that the district “worked with every employee with concerns to do our best to provide virtual options to the extent possible.”

“Many factors were considered, including having enough students to make schedules and class loads work. High school is the most difficult, and we ended up only being able to offer certain portions of the day to many people,” Schofield said in emailed answers to The Times’ questions. “A couple employees asked if they could only work part time for the virtual courses. We honored all of those requests.”

In response to Wang’s argument that schools should remain remote until a vaccine is widely administered, Schofield said the idea is “completely opposed” to the importance of schooling from an academic, social and emotional perspective. 

“If we had it to do over again and knew what we know now, we would have never sent 53 million students home to their basements in March,” he said. “The decision to have in-person school is based upon the reality that significant portions of our students are being dramatically harmed by not being in school.”
Schofield said physical abuse, emotional trauma and mental health issues, as well as academic loss “are going to follow these children for the rest of their lives.”

“Research studies will be done for decades about the students who have been left behind during the pandemic,” he said.

Williams echoed his Hall counterpart, adding that there is often a divide between families who may have the means to secure a solid education and other assistance for their children and those who do not. 

“The communication is in no way comparable to them being in our buildings day to day,” he said. “We are seeing some success in some kids that are virtual, but it’s normally because of the structure that they have around that child in the house. But in an area like ours, where we have the highest percentage of English learners in the state of Georgia, at 30%, some of those resources are not equitable at home as they are at school.”

On the topic of students’ mental and emotional health and educational slide, Ciccarelli also said the CDC’s recent studies have begun to show that it “may be more beneficial to more people to … reopen schools.”

Ciccarelli said PAGE survey data also shows that the state’s teachers largely believe students have suffered “significant learning loss” because of long-term virtual education. And she said they’re aware that getting those students back up to speed will be a heavy lift. She would not go so far to say that “a majority” of teachers in Georgia want to make a full switch back to in-person school. 

Anecdotally, Ciccarelli said longer stints of virtual school have meant more social-emotional problems for more students in the state. She also called it “unfortunate” that so much of the responsibility has fallen to schools to be the first line of defense for child abuse and mental health. She said the pandemic has put a magnifying glass on that reality.

“(Teachers) take their mandated reporter responsibilities seriously, and they’re heartbroken by the stories of abuse and neglect that have occurred at an increasing rate during the pandemic,” Ciccarelli said. “It’s just unfortunate that we ask so much of schools and then when schools have shut down during the pandemic, it leaves us without a safety net for those kids.”

Overall, Ciccarelli said too many people believe that if governments or districts would just do “XYZ, then this problem would be solved.” 

The pandemic has been a complicated issue to address in any community sector, she said, but “nowhere has it become more evident that it’s complicated than in schools.”

Ciccarelli encouraged parents and staff who have concerns related to the handling of the pandemic to bring their concerns to local leaders, who she said the “average citizen” can easily reach.

At the end of the day, Schofield said, the district “can only do so much to mitigate the anxiety certain individuals feel about the potential of getting COVID.”

Williams agreed, adding that “nothing has been more polarizing than COVID.”

“We recognize that we’re not going to agree with everybody, and people aren’t going to agree with us, but if there had been an indication … that we needed to go remote for an extended period of time, we would have done so,” he said. “And we have pivoted when we’ve needed to pivot.”

Williams also said teacher and parent concern has seemed to dwindle as the school year has continued. Williams said 85% of Gainesville families elected in-person learning in the fall, and that number increased to 93% in the spring. 

In Hall, Schofield said 78% of the district’s families chose in-person classes in the fall, and 89% chose in-person in the spring.

With the increase in preference for in-person school also comes a decrease in demand for online teachers in the districts, and Williams said that does lead to less availability for teachers to stick to online classes only. 

But both superintendents also said they heard more staff member concerns in the summer and fall than they do now.

“I have had one teacher express anxiety and fear to me since Christmas,” Schofield said. “She was reasonable and had some valid concerns. I have had scores of teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and their colleagues express a real satisfaction with being able to serve our boys and girls. Do people have anxiety? Yes! Have most of them made the determination that what we are doing is worthwhile? Absolutely.”

Other teachers that The Times reached out to declined to comment on their anxieties about in-person school. However, The Times conducted a community survey online, asking respondents to rank from 1 to 5 how comfortable they were with in-person school, with a 5 being the most comfortable.

Of the 67 respondents who answered, most selected 4 or 5.

 28, or nearly 42% responded with a 5. Forty-one respondents answered with either a 4 or a 5, representing 61.2% of responses.

When asked how confident they are in school district leadership to address COVID-19 concerns, 22 respondents (33%) answered with a 5, and 31, (46%) answered with either a 4 or 5.

Elected officials' views on the matter

School board members in both Hall and Gainesville appear to agree with their superintendents that in-person school is the best possible option at this point in the pandemic, and they say they are so far happy with their district’s response over the past 11 months.

In Hall, Board of Education Chairman Craig Herrington said the district’s staff has done well to follow and enforce COVID-19 precautions. He reiterated the superintendents’ assertions that “having that routine” of being in school, wearing masks, social distancing and other measures have been the key to keeping virus transmissions down.

He also said the anxiety from staff that he’d heard more often in the summer and fall, which he said mostly came from “the unknowns” of how school was going to function, has diminished.

“I think the majority now think it’s the right thing to do to get the students back in school,” Herrington said. “In the long run, that’s the best for the most students.”

Nath Morris, Herrington’s vice chair, said the district knew from the beginning of the pandemic that virtual school would not be the best option for education. But, he said, they also knew there had to be flexibility.

As time has gone on, Morris said the calls to come back to school from educators and parents alike has only increased.

“But we also realize there are risks involved that people need to consider, especially staff members, (to decide) whether they can do it or not,” he said, adding that in some cases there simply is no other option than to offer well-wishes to staff members who decide they can’t take the risk.

Morris said the board is doing what it can to prevent these scenarios, offering as an example the board’s recent action that provided an additional 10 days paid leave for staff in the event that they can’t work because of COVID-19. The leave will be paid for with CARES Act money. 

“Nobody’s ever had to go through something like this that’s living now, and it’s tough. It’s tough on everybody,” Morris said.

The decisions that the school board and district have had to make have come down to what is best for the “over 30,000 people” in Hall schools, said Hall school board member Mark Pettitt.

Pettitt said waiting until a vaccine is widely available is, at this point, a gamble, as it’s still unclear when that will be a reality. And, he said, even the number of months that school buildings were closed last year, when the pandemic was just beginning, was too much.

Echoing the others, Pettitt said the mental health concerns and issues that have risen from extended school closures would be “so much worse” if districts remained closed. 

The Hall school system, he said, had been preparing for some virtual instruction for a number of years, but the planning could not have prepared students and staff to be in school online for “months on end.”

“So that has been a pretty significant adjustment,” Pettitt said. “But I think it’s going as good as it can.”

In Gainesville, school board Chairman Andy Stewart said the district’s decisions on how to hold class have always lined up with the severity of the local health system’s data.

“I think … our district has done a good job of putting protocols in place to try to keep our kids and teachers as safe as possible,” Stewart said. “We have been very conscious … about the community’s partnership with the hospital.”

And, he said, the emails, phone calls and texts that he has received from parents as of late have not been from those fearful of sending their children back to school but from families who “greatly desire to get their kids back into schools.”
Even so, said Gainesville school board Vice Chair Willie Mitchell, the district and board has been “extremely cautious.”

As Williams previously pointed out, Mitchell said the most concerning effect of the pandemic to him is the gap that exists between students who have the means to engage effectively in online school from home and those who do not. Many students, for example, may not have reliable internet at home.

“The students that are on the lower end of the scale poverty-wise, they’re probably affected more than any other students in the system,” Mitchell said, adding that they are also potentially the families who are hardest hit by the virus.

He said as the pandemic continues, it will take a village — with teamwork from churches, nonprofits, families and others — to effectively connect as many students as possible with the academic and social-emotional help that they need. 

“I think there’s still a lot of catching up to do,” Mitchell said.
It’s true, Mitchell said, that school response to COVID-19 has been a polarizing topic at times, and he’s heard from families on both sides of the debate. But, he said, that debate leaves him only one logical choice: 

“You want to please everybody, but we know that’s impossible, so therefore, my sticking point would be to support the science,” he said, adding that he had been vaccinated on Thursday. “It’s kind of like you’re learning as you go.”