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How many positive COVID-19 cases would close a school? It depends.
Administrators say too many variables to use numbers alone
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Gainesville High School students walk to the school entrance Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, on the first day of in-person classes for Gainesville City Schools. - photo by Scott Rogers

There’s one question that has been eating away at University of North Georgia professor Matthew Boedy more than any other since the university announced its return to school plan this summer: What would it take for a school campus to close down this fall? 

Boedy, an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at UNG, said he’s asked what the university thresholds for campus closure are due to a COVID-19 outbreak on multiple occasions but has not received a straight answer. 

“That is the big question, the elephant in the room, the $64,000 question,” he said. “No one knows. No one knows what benchmarks, medical or otherwise, the university or the USG is using.” 

UNG has reported 127 new cases of COVID-19 across all five campuses in the last 14 days, according to the school’s online tracker – including 26 at the Gainesville campus – but it is unclear what those numbers mean regarding the potential of a campus closure.   

When asked what would lead to a closing of a UNG campus, school spokeswoman Sylvia Carson was noncommittal in her response.  

“UNG developed comprehensive plans for fall semester following GDPH and CDC guidelines,” Carson wrote via email. “While we closely monitor on and off-campus dynamics, any change to those plans would be made in consultation with the University System of Georgia.” 

Aaron Diamant, spokesman for the University System of Georgia, could not provide any more clarity on the subject.  

“In May, each of USG’s 26 institutions completed three detailed plans in preparation for fall semester so these are in place,” Diamant wrote via email when asked what would lead to the closing of a USG school. “USG constantly evaluates a variety of on and off-campus factors and continues to follow COVID-19 guidance from the Georgia Department of Public Health, CDC, and the Governor’s COVID-19 Task Force. We remain committed to the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff but also to the value of the on-campus educational experience.” 

When asked to provide further clarification and to specify whether USG or the schools themselves would make the final call on closing a campus, Diamant referred back to the above statement.  

Nailing down exactly what would cause a school to close – either at the university or K-12 level – is a difficult task to accomplish. Both Gainesville City Superintendent Jeremy Williams and Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield said there was not an identified amount or percentage of positive cases among students and employees that would lead the school to shut down, as did Lanier Technical College President Ray Perren, Brenau Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Jim Eck and Lakeview Academy Head of School Kirsty Montgomery.  

And while that answer may be frustrating for school employees such as Boedy, Dave Palmer, spokesman for District 2 of the Georgia Department of Public Health, said there is a reason why schools have shied away from providing clearer answers on the potential for school closure.  

According to a document provided by Palmer titled “Guidance for Georgia K-12 Schools and School-Based Programs,” decisions on partial and total closures are dependent on a variety of factors.  

For example, school officials are urged to consider the “size and characteristics of student and staff population,” meaning that a school with a high population of individuals requiring special healthcare needs may close earlier than a school without.  

School officials are also asked to consider setting, characteristics and environmental factors that affect transmission (such as the length and setting of a school day and the amount of interactions students have with each other on a daily basis), the possibility of spread to others (such as the potential that there was an outbreak at an assembly or on a highly populated school bus), absenteeism among staff that would not allow school to function effectively, a suspected case rate higher than that of the surrounding community and any additional indicators that may suggests a high rate of undiagnosed or unreported cases of COVID-19. 

"It would just depend on the circumstances,” Palmer said.  

We know credible local information is crucial now more than ever. Questions have swirled about COVID plans at schools as everyone has worked to determine the best path forward. Education reporter Nathan Berg reached out to school leaders across Hall County to answer one big question: What would it take for a school to close? Answers were more nuanced than simple COVID-19 positive totals. This type of journalism requires our subscribers' support; thank you to those helping us provide the journalism you've come to trust. For those interested in becoming part of our mission to provide fair, unbiased coverage of our community, please consider these two options.

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Schofield said that while the number of confirmed cases at an individual school would be the No. 1 factor in deciding whether to close that school, the point when that decision is made “could vary wildly.” He gave the example of a couple of large families going on a beach vacation and all of them getting sick prior to returning to school. While that may result in a large increase in positive COVID-19 cases in a school, because none of those people would have come in contact with other students, the school they attend would not need to be shut down.  

He said the school district would prefer to make closings “as granular as possible,” and would preferably shut down an individual classroom or grade level rather than a whole school. Schofield added that the school district would be keeping an eye on the occupancy of COVID-19 wings at local hospitals, making decisions more cautiously as less space is available.  

“We’ll do everything we can to try to limit our being a part of the problem and choosing to be a part of the solution,” he said. 

Students getting sick is not the only occurrence that could lead to a temporary school closure.  

Williams said in the Gainesville City School System the most likely cause for a school to close would be if too many educators were unable to teach their classes.  

“If one student tests positive, it may mean five to 10 need to quarantine, but if a teacher tests positive, then that means I’ve got to find coverage for that classroom,” he said. “I don’t want to say it’s a case-to-case basis, but it all depends on the locale of those cases.” 

Palmer said DPH officials understand every school and school system is unique, which is why the organization put the deciding power in the hands of school leaders to choose when it is best to close.  

“There’s just so many variables there that schools and DPH left it kind of open-ended so it could be taken on a case-by-case basis to determine closure,” he said. 

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