Schools across America are slowly reopening for the fall, with some students resuming in-person learning. Students went back to school in Georgia, Tennessee, Indiana, Louisiana and Mississippi. Some states, like Delaware, Hawaii, North Carolina and Massachusetts, have school districts that pushed back their plans to reopen schools to allow more time to prepare.
A week isn’t a long time, but information has already seeped out about how things are going in school districts across the country that are currently open for in-person learning. There are photos of students standing shoulder-to-shoulder in hallways, pictures of mixed mask-wearing and reports of outbreaks at schools.
It’s all to be expected, Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. “You’re going to get cases and hot spots — that shouldn’t be a surprise,” he says. “If your community has high levels of spread, there’s no way you can keep it out of the school.” At the same time, Adalja warns that the general public may not hear as much about the schools that are doing OK, when that happens. “That news isn’t as exciting,” he says.
Dana Phillips, who has three children in the Jefferson City, Ga., school district, where masks aren’t required, tells Yahoo Life that she’s not entirely sure how her school system is doing right now. What she does know: Life is different these days. “My kids take it day by day,” she says. Phillips says her family has a “13-step program” for when her kids come home, which includes removing their masks and putting them in special containers, and taking their temperatures and using a pulse oximeter to check their vitals. “That’s what we have to do as a family to sleep at night,” she says.
Phillips also says that cellphones have been banned in school, presumably so that students can’t take photos of what’s happening and share them with parents and others who aren’t able to witness it. “We found that frustrating,” Phillips says. The Jefferson City Schools superintendent did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment.
In general, the back-to-school experience “has been a mixed bag” in terms of COVID-19 transmission, Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life.
Here’s what we know about how things are going so far across the country.
Photos from the first day at North Paulding High School went viral on Twitter that showed students — many not masked — crammed into a busy hallway. Another showed a classroom with desks positioned near each other. This wasn’t in violation of district policy, which states online that “schools will employ social distancing as it is feasible and practical. While the district will encourage students, teachers and bus drivers to wear masks, in most cases it will not be possible to enforce social distancing in classrooms or on school buses unless it is a class or a bus with fewer students.”
However, Paulding County School District superintendent Brian Otott said in a letter obtained by TMZ that “there is no question that the photo does not look good.” (North Paulding did not reply to Yahoo Life’s request for comment on the photo.)
This is the first day of school in Paulding County, Georgia. pic.twitter.com/fzdidaAABM
— 🇯🇲Black🇭🇹Aziz🇳🇬aNANsi🇹🇹 (@Freeyourmindkid) August 4, 2020
Day two at North Paulding High School. It is just as bad. We were stopped because it was jammed. We are close enough to the point where I got pushed multiple go to second block. This is not ok. Not to mention the 10% mask rate. pic.twitter.com/JKbGYqG9RS
— hannah (@ihateiceman) August 4, 2020
More pictures from inside of the school pic.twitter.com/A08L9WbXIw
— 🇯🇲Black🇭🇹Aziz🇳🇬aNANsi🇹🇹 (@Freeyourmindkid) August 5, 2020
The students who took the photos were suspended. “The policies I broke stated that I used my phone in the hallway without permission, used my phone for social media, and posting pictures of minors without consent,” 15-year-old Hannah Watters told BuzzFeed. A second student who preferred to remain anonymous said they were given the same punishment. However, according to the New York Times, the suspension was lifted and wiped from Watters’s record.
Just before the first day of school, the principal of North Paulding High School sent a letter to parents, informing them of a COVID-19 outbreak among members of the high school football team, who worked out together in an indoor gym as part of a weight-lifting fundraiser, reported 11 Alive. However, Logan Boss, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Public Health’s northwest district — which includes Paulding County — told the New York Times that the agency was not aware of an outbreak at the school. “There’s widespread community transmission in Paulding County,” Boss added.
News has been scarce out of Jefferson City schools, Phillips says, and she says it’s also unclear what is happening. “I don’t trust my school system to accurately communicate if there has been exposure at the school,” she says. From what she’s heard, mask-wearing in schools is a “50-50 split.”
“Of those, about 20 percent of people have masks and aren’t wearing them correctly,” she says.
While school hasn’t started yet for students in Barrow County schools, the district announced this week that it will be shifting from an in-person model to remote learning when school starts on Aug. 17 after 90 teachers had to quarantine due to having a confirmed or suspected case of the virus, or exposure to it, during preplanning, the school system announced in a statement. The statement said that “every precaution was taken and each staff member was required to wear a mask,” adding, “If today was the first day of school, we would have been hard-pressed to have sufficient staff available to open our schools.”
Phillips says some parents are “staging wagers” on when her school district will switch to remote learning as well.
At least two schools in the state — Elwood Junior-Senior High School and Lanesville Junior-Senior High School — shut down after students and employees tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the Associated Press. But Greenfield Central Junior High School remained open after reporting positive cases among students and staff. (None of the three schools replied to Yahoo Life’s request for comment.)
Elwood Junior-Senior High School, which opened to students on July 30, shifted to online learning this week after there were “more positive cases from staff members than expected,” school superintendent Joe Brown wrote in a letter to families. Athletic programming — i.e., students practicing sports — continued “since no coaches or student-athletes were in close contact” with the confirmed cases, the letter says.
Lanesville Junior-Senior High School, which opened to students on July 29, shut down on Monday for deep cleaning after four students tested positive, Wave 3 News reports. “It’s been an interesting start to the school year,” Steve Morris, the superintendent and secondary principal at Lanesville Community School Corp., told the outlet. “It’s not the start that any of us would have wished for. It’s very disappointing and it’s deflating, but it was something we had anticipated all along. Our plans were prepared for this.” Classes resumed on Tuesday.
A student at Greenfield Central Junior High School tested positive for the virus after attending part of the first day of school on July 31, according to the Indianapolis Star. Families of students who spent more than 15 minutes within 6 feet of the infected student were contacted Thursday night and told to quarantine for 14 days, the district told the Star. The district did not share how many students were affected.
A “handful” of Jefferson Parish Public School System employees tested positive after the school did a soft opening this week, spokesperson Vicki Bristol told Fox 8. “The safety of our students and employees is our top responsibility. Jefferson Parish Schools continues to work closely with local public health officials to implement safety protocols that minimize exposure to COVID-19 in our schools,” school system officials said in an emailed statement to the news organization. “We expect there to be cases in our schools throughout the year given the levels of COVID-19 in our communities.”
Protesting the unsafe school opening in Jefferson Parish. Louisiana has the highest per captia infection rate and JP has the highest infection rate, so how is this even an issue? #SchoolsMustShutdown #BlackLivesMatter pic.twitter.com/dkQeCzWyNI
— Brian M. Williams (@Maderous) August 5, 2020
Six students and one staff member in Corinth tested positive for the coronavirus, forcing 116 students into home quarantine, per the Washington Post. School superintendent Lee Childress said in a Facebook Live session that there were no plans to close schools. “Just because you begin to have positive cases, that is not a reason for closing school,” he said.
In Lafayette County, teacher and assistant high school coach Nacoma James, 42, died while self-quarantining with COVID-19 symptoms, the district’s superintendent, Adam Pugh, told Mississippi Today. James attended summer workouts for the football team, but didn’t return to the classroom for the start of the school year. Pugh told Mississippi Today that James was with students “all summer” during football workouts.
The Jackson County School District had nine reported cases of COVID-19 among teachers and students, school superintendent John Strycker revealed, per the Sun Herald. The school system added a mask mandate on Aug. 4, per an executive order by Gov. Tate Reeves.
Coffee County Schools announced on Facebook Wednesday that two of its schools — Coffee County Middle and North Coffee — would be closed for the rest of the week “through an abundance of caution over COVID-19.” The schools opened with an abbreviated schedule on Monday. The statement said that “parents will be contacted directly if there is any reason for concern with an individual student.”
Blount County Schools, which opened on July 29, switched to a hybrid learning model for two weeks as case counts in the area rose, with students in class a few days a week and working remotely the other days, the school system shared on Facebook.
In Maryville City Schools, a student tested positive for the virus at Coulter Grove Intermediate School, and a staff member tested positive at John Sevier Elementary School, sending a class of 16 students into quarantine, per Knox News.
Several other school districts in the state, including Oak Ridge Schools and Greenville City Schools, revealed that they had positive cases, per the Tennessean. Alcoa City Schools shared news of one positive case on its website.
Dr. Jeffrey Starke, a professor of pediatrics and infectious disease at the Baylor College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life that he’s “not surprised” by what’s happened in schools so far. “Kids may show up to school already infected and we don’t know it — that’s going to happen,” he says. “Other kids are going to get infected at various times.” Starke says it’s also going to be “extraordinarily difficult” to keep the virus out of certain high-contact school sports like football.
Dr. Steve Turkovich, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Services at the University at Buffalo, tells Yahoo Life that it’s important for people to understand that “there’s no way we’re going to get cases in schools down to zero,” especially in areas where community spread is high. However, he said, it’s important for school districts to be aware of what’s happening in their communities. “You need to have low prevalence of COVID-19 in the community in order to reopen,” he says. “Without that metric in place, I don’t think you can do it safely.”
Watkins says it may take time to see the fallout of schools reopening — if there is any. “We should have more answers after most districts start,” he says, “so I would guess Labor Day would be a good time to gauge how things are going to play out.”
Video: Should you send your child back to school? Here’s how to weigh the coronavirus risks.
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