As COVID-19 numbers at local hospitals hit peaks earlier this month and as vaccine rollout continues across the state, some school districts have come under fire for returning to in-person classes too soon.
Some parents and caregivers have expressed concerns. School leaders have maintained they’ve balanced concerns as best they can. And local health officials have provided information to systems showing that transmission within schools is low, even as numbers surged in the community at large.
Now, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention backs up school and health leaders. The report indicates there has not been significant spread of the virus in K-12 schools since many districts in the U.S., including Gainesville and Hall County, returned to classrooms in the fall.
What we know now: COVID-19 spread in schools is low
The CDC’s report, released on Tuesday, Jan. 26, in the journal of the American Medical Association, indicates accumulating data now makes a case for maintaining or returning “primarily or fully to in-person instructional delivery.”
After schools across the country closed beginning in March, COVID-19 spread quickly through the spring and summer of 2020 in “congregate settings,” such as long-term care facilities, poultry and meat packing plants and jails.
That spread, the report says, led to fear of the same happening in public school settings, and planning for the 2020-21 school year “included much uncertainty about the risk of transmission in school settings.”
Both Hall and Gainesville school systems delayed the start of their fall semesters.
“The appropriate evaluation of (in-person class) risks vs benefits was hampered by limited information about transmission risk in classroom settings,” the new report reads. “Closing schools could adversely affect students’ academic progress, mental health, and access to essential services; however, if (COVID-19) rapidly spread in classrooms, opening schools might accelerate community transmission of the virus. There were no simple decisions for parents, teachers, administrators, or public officials.”
The Times will be publishing additional stories about how COVID-19 has affected local schools. Look for these stories this week.
How Hall County social workers and teachers are helping students adjust
What a new CDC report recommends on school sports
What other school stakeholders are saying about school amid the pandemic
Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield and Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Jeremy Williams have spoken of the struggle to weigh those factors.
Schofield said decisions are a “sacred balance” between ensuring the safety of those in schools and ensuring students don’t fall behind academically or suffer in declining social-emotional wellbeing.
“Some of the saddest emails I get will be from a 67-year-old bus driver with diabetes and a heart condition. Cindy says, ‘Well, I love my job. But I just can't put myself in this position any longer.’ And, and all I can say is, ‘I understand. I get it,’” Schofield said, adding that he would always invite those employees back when they felt safe. “The question is, ‘Does it make a difference whether or not boys and girls ... are physically present in schools?’ We're seeing record numbers of trauma, abuse, mental health issues, students in poverty, who are falling further and further behind. … So it's not an either/or, it's a balancing of this tremendous set of variables. And it's a heavy, heavy decision … but we made the decision early on that — in a district that has two-thirds of our students coming from homes of poverty — when we could make it work, these kids need to be in school.”
Both systems have allowed families to choose virtual or in-person learning, but little flexibility is allowed after that choice is made due to the difficulty of providing adequate staffing for those changing needs, the school leaders have said.
Schofield said the district has seen some staff retire early or choose not to return to the school system out of fears of the virus.
Williams, too, has seen “varying levels of anxiety” among staff, he said, as some in the school communities have lost family members to COVID-19 or had it themselves. Like Schofield, Williams said some of his staff had considered early retirement or other options. But, he said, the fact remains that there has been very little transmission within schools.
With more data in hand following the fall 2020 semester, school leaders are in a better position to make decisions.
“We had 281 cases, from the beginning of the school year until now, and there would be no more than a possible 23 of those having a school-based connection,” Williams said. “Ninety-two percent of our positive cases were due to an outside exposure.”
Though there have been reports of “school-related cases” of COVID-19 since the fall, the CDC’s study says there has been “little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”
The report cites a study of 11 school districts in North Carolina with more than 90,000 students and staff, which were open for in-person school for nine weeks in the fall. During that time, in-school transmissions of the virus were “very rare,” and there were zero cases of student-to-staff transmission, according to the report.
Studies in districts in other states came to similar conclusions.
The CDC’s report says the evidence, combined with community precautions, rollout of vaccine doses and restriction of some school activities, like sports, gives “much hope on the horizon” that in-person school and some school-related activities can resume.
“Committing today to policies that prevent (COVID-19) transmission in communities and in schools will help ensure the future social and academic welfare of all students and their education,” the report says.
What we’re doing to limit spread
In Northeast Georgia, few restrictions are mandated but some private businesses require masks. The Northeast Georgia Health System and Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce have promoted wearing masks, watching distance and washing hands.
In schools, both districts say they require the use of face coverings for both students and staff, have required daily health screening questions for families, social distancing whenever possible and encourage regular hand washing and other preventative measures.
Beyond frontline precautions like those, the local district leaders say contact tracing is one of the most important measures they have taken to stop the spread of the virus in its tracks.
Schofield said when a positive case of a student or staff member is reported, contact tracers “live on the phone” determine who may have been in close contact with that person.
Anyone identified is immediately quarantined, and the process is overly cautious, he said. That means, even if only one person has tested positive but that person had potentially come into contact with 60 people, all 60 will be quarantined if they have been within 6 feet of the infected person for at least 15 minutes.
Hall County does not daily report the number of quarantined staff and students on a school level, but Schofield told The Times that 39 staff and 472 students were in quarantine on Monday, Feb. 1. That represents 1.14% of the district’s 3,400 staff and 2.07% of the 22,696 in-person learners, he said.
For comparison, Gainesville’s 120 total students quarantined as of Monday, Feb. 1, equates to about 1.3% of its around 9,000 students and staff.
Schofield said district officials are updated daily with COVID-19 data from Northeast Georgia Health System, and he said the health system does its own tracking of whether individuals admitted into its hospitals are associated with the school district.
“When they test a patient, one of the questions on the registration form is, ‘Are you a student, or do you work at a Hall County school?’” Schofield said. “And they check off what school that is so they will be able to give me, on a daily basis, how many people tested positive that have a connection directly to one of our schools.”
Around Christmas, he said the number of positive cases for people associated with the Hall school district reached about eight or nine seen at the health system per day.
Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, NGHS medical director of infectious disease medicine, said the health system offers COVID-19 information to both districts, but only advises school leaders, leaving final decisions about school closures or reopenings to them.
“We provide our data and try to answer any questions school leaders may have. We also provide recommendations or advise how to handle specific situations, but respect that operational decisions are ultimately made by the schools,” she said.
But Mannepalli also said the Hall and Gainesville school districts seem to fit the CDC’s findings.
“One of the things we’ve learned during the past 11 months is the available data shows schools don’t seem to be a major vector for the virus to spread, as long as they’re taking precautionary steps like enforcing mask usage and distancing as much as possible,” Mannepalli said.
She offered a local example, pointing to the stretch from October to November last year when Hall and Gainesville schools were mostly conducting in-person classes. She said COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations during that time did not trend upward.
Mannepalli said the districts have done a good job of engaging the experts and gathering data to make decisions.
District 2 Public Health declined to comment for this story, instead referring The Times to the school districts for questions.
What school districts’ most recent data shows
COVID-19 numbers surged in the community after Thanksgiving and Christmas, with the health system reaching new peaks since the virus first appeared.
Both Gainesville and Hall school systems saw spikes in virus cases, too, with a handful of individual schools moving to virtual instruction and eventually all but Hall’s elementary students finishing the semester virtually.
Both districts ask families to continue to report COVID-19 cases or symptoms over breaks, but fewer families do so than when school is in session, making data collection difficult. That can also make understanding the school COVID-19 data difficult on the surface.
Williams said since holiday breaks often lead to community case spikes, to include students and staff, the districts have tended to delay coming back full-swing directly after those breaks to play it safe.
Once school is back in session, families are once again better about reporting positive cases, and quarantines begin again, explaining spikes seen on district reporting, Williams said.
And, school officials note, some of the reported cases at the beginning of the semester have not yet been on school grounds.
Williams said the districts have routinely delayed in-person classes after breaks both to wait for cases to go down again but also to allow their school communities to get back into a safe mindset for school.
“We needed people to have a target in mind of, ‘Here's when I'm coming back to school, that whatever I'm doing personally, I need to adjust my habits, so that I can be as safe as possible when I return,” he said. “We had success in the first semester of opening school and seeing the numbers at the time continue to decrease and then really stay low until your activities of Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas started to pick up. So I believe we were effective in that first semester of showing that we can open school in a safe way without creating a community spike. But we also can't be blind to what's happening in the community, which is why we delayed the face-to-face start (in January).”
Schofield also said numbers leading to a school shutdown are more nuanced than most people realize.
For example, he said, one school may have 10 positive COVID-19 cases reported over breaks, but those 10 people may not have returned to school. That, he said, may not constitute the closure of a campus.
However, another school may report that eight students have tested positive after going through their seven-day course schedule during a regular school day, potentially coming into contact with classes full of students and staff. While rare, that kind of exposure could result in a school closing.
In Gainesville, students were phased back into in-person classes after an online start on Jan. 6.
Students in pre-K through second grade returned to in-person class on Tuesday, Jan. 19, third through eighth grade returned Monday, Jan. 25, and all students were back in person on Wednesday, Jan. 27.
Schofield said delays have also worked well in Hall, where in-person classes began two weeks after the first day of the spring semester. Hall began online Jan. 5, and implemented a hybrid schedule beginning Jan. 19. All students returned in person on Monday, Jan. 25.
We needed people to have a target in mind of, ‘Here's when I'm coming back to school, that whatever I'm doing personally, I need to adjust my habits, so that I can be as safe as possible when I return.' We had success in the first semester of opening school and seeing the numbers at the time continue to decrease and then really stay low until your activities of Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas started to pick up. So I believe we were effective in that first semester of showing that we can open school in a safe way without creating a community spike.Jeremy Williams, Gainesville school superintendent
Where we go from here
Both Schofield and Williams said there is no one metric or threshold that the districts use to determine whether they’ll return in person after breaks or closures. Instead, the decision is based on a combination of data sets, including number of students and staff absent, dates that students and staff plan to return to school after quarantine, number of staff and students included in contact tracing and others.
Williams did say, however, if there is one deciding factor that determines whether a school will move to remote instruction, it’s likely whether enough staff are available to cover classroom instruction, meal duties, cleaning services and other essential activities.
For example, he said, Gainesville district officials know they can still adequately staff food services if up to three out of the nine kitchens across the eight Gainesville schools are not able to open because of COVID-19-related issues. But, if a fourth kitchen is forced to close, it could mean the district must consider school closures.
Schofield said NGHS continues to provide updates to the school systems daily on the number of students and staff who are admitted or test positive for COVID-19. He said compared to the Christmas season, when the health system reported eight or nine daily cases, there have been zero for multiple days in recent weeks, even after schools have returned to session. Late January was the first time that had been reported since the beginning of 2021, he said.
He called that an “incredibly hopeful piece of data,” adding that it also indicates that keeping kids in class in person can lessen spread in schools.
“Ten months into this pandemic, there's good news and bad news,” Schofield said. “The good news is we've gotten pretty astute at managing and knowing what's around the corner. The bad news is, (the virus is) still here.”
Williams said the next test for school communities will be over spring break, April 5-9, after which school leaders say they could see another spike.
Mannepalli said the districts have done a good job of offering virtual learning options and shifting to hybrid schedules during COVID-19 peaks. But she also said it’s good for communities if schools can develop processes that allow them to keep schools open.
“There are obvious stresses it adds on parents and families to adjust schedules to support virtual learning, as well shifts in routines for school faculty and staff, so mental health is a big concern,” she said.
For teachers or other staff who may be concerned about being at schools in person, Mannepalli said stick to the three Ws:wear a mask, watch your distance and wash your hands.
She also called the ongoing rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine a “key” to helping schools and businesses operate “without concerns.”
Mannepalli said educators under the age of 65 are one of the groups next in line for vaccinations in phase 1B of the state’s rollout plan. The vaccine rollout is currently in phase 1A+, which includes eligibility for health care workers, long-term care facility staff and adults 65 and older.
Mannepalli said there is not yet a date set for when the rollout will move to phase 1B.
“The faster we can vaccinate as many people as possible, the faster we can lower the risk of transmission and approach herd immunity,” she said.
Williams said only those staff who may volunteer or hold other jobs that might see them vaccinated have received a shot, but the district has scheduled with the department of public health a vaccination event for staff 65 and older on Feb. 4.
Hall schools spokesman Stan Lewis said the district does not have a record of those who have been vaccinated on their own, but the district is scheduled to vaccinate all those who meet the criteria for the current vaccine rollout phase on Feb. 5.
“We have reached out to the DPH regarding when we might be able to implement phase 1B, which would allow us to vaccinate those under 65. We are waiting to hear when that might be possible,” he said.
Mannepalli said the other key will be to reach the World Health Organization’s target of 5% or lower of all tests coming back positive for at least 14 days, a good indicator of “truly low virus transmission.”
Over the last two weeks in Hall, 14.3% of tests had returned a positive result, according to Georgia DPH data from Tuesday, Feb. 2.