Viral Images of Student Crowds, Tightly-Packed Hallways Raise Questions in Newly Reopened Georgia Schools

(ATLANTA) — Two suburban Atlanta school districts that began in-person classes Monday with mask-optional policies face more questions about COVID-19 safety protocols after on-campus pictures showed students packed shoulder-to-shoulder.

In Cherokee County, dozens of seniors gathered at two of the district’s six high schools to take traditional first-day-of-school senior photos, with students squeezing together in black outfits. No one in pictures taken at Sequoyah High School in Hickory Flat or Etowah High School in Woodstock wore a mask.

In Paulding County, student pictures taken Monday and Tuesday show crowded hallways at North Paulding High School in Dallas. Fewer than half of the students shown are wearing masks.

Read more: As the School Year Approaches, Education May Become the Pandemic’s Latest Casualty

Critics widely derided the pictures on social media, although some residents of the counties voiced support.

Georgia’s largest school district, Gwinnett County, said Tuesday it hopes to make a phased return to face-to-face instruction after an all-remote start to classes. All students seeking in-person classes could be welcome by Sept. 8, in what Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks wrote is a “best case” scenario.

Georgia hit a new weekly high for COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, having averaged 51 confirmed deaths from the respiratory illness over the last seven days. Newly confirmed cases remain high, but have trended down over the last week, as has the share of positive tests. Both could indicate the current outbreak in Georgia has peaked.

The number of people with COVID-19 in Georgia hospitals hit all time highs last week, but have fallen slightly.

Paulding County Superintendent Brian Ottot, in an email sent Tuesday, said pictures were accurate, but said the district is following state guidelines and that students need longer than a few minutes in the hall to catch the virus from others.

Ottot wrote that class changes are “a challenge” and that “it is an area where we are continuing to work on in this new environment to find practicable ways to further limit students from congregating,” He added that “There is no question that the photo does not look good.”

Ottot defended the district’s decision not to require masks, writing that “Wearing a mask is a personal choice and there is no practical way to enforce a mandate to wear them.”

At least one North Paulding football player tested positive for coronavirus in recent days, among hundreds of Georgia athletes confirmed with infections.

Students arrive to Dallas Elementary School for the first day of school amid the coronavirus outbreak on Aug. 3, 2020, in Dallas, Ga.

Brynn Anderson—AP

Cherokee County school district spokesperson Barbara Jacoby said the pictures weren’t a sanctioned activity and officials only became aware when the photos were posted on social media. She didn’t say why staff members weren’t present or didn’t break up groups. An Instagram account associated with Sequoyah High School shared the picture, writing “Welcome Back!!!” but the picture was later removed.

“As with every first day of school, students and parents took ‘first day’ photos before school started outside of the schools — some of the photos were of students with masks on, and some were of students not wearing masks,” Jacoby wrote in an email.

Jacoby wrote that the district continues to “strongly encourage and recommend that all students social distance and, when they cannot, that they wear masks inside the school and on buses.”

Read more: Here’s What the Science Actually Says About Kids and COVID-19

Cherokee County officials later announced a student at Sixes Elementary School near Canton tested positive for the virus. The child’s teacher and 20 other students were sent home to quarantine and learn online for 14 days.

Superintendent Brian Hightower had already provoked ire among some teachers with a Friday email that some interpreted as suggesting they resign if they had COVID-19 concerns.

“For those of you who are unhappy with various facets of our reopening plan, I ask you to reflect on the best direction for you in your role with CCSD,” Hightower wrote.

On Saturday, Hightower wrote another email saying he heard from “several” employees and he “should have done a much better job of sharing my appreciation for both your efforts and concerns as it relates to our school reopening.”

Cherokee and Paulding were the largest Georgia districts to resume full five-day-a-week instruction on Monday. Both are giving parents the option of five-day-a-week classes or online learning. In Paulding, 30% of students chose online learning, while 22% chose it in Cherokee.

Gwinnett County announced it would start instruction all-virtual on Aug. 12. Gwinnett and Cobb County, which also announced virtual instruction, have faced protests from parents demanding in-person classes.

The 180,000-student Gwinnett district announced Tuesday that it could seek to bring kindergartners, first graders, sixth graders, high school freshmen and certain special education students back to school as early as Aug. 26. More grades would follow in phases for students not taking classes online.

Read more: All Parents Are Having a Tough Time Right Now. But Parents of Middle Schoolers Have It Especially Bad

“Student and staff safety will be the paramount factor in determining the pace at which we will move,” Wilbanks wrote, adding that changes might be needed “based on the still-fluid COVID-19 situation.”

The 111,000-student Cobb County district and the 94,000-student Fulton County district are also discussing phased returns. Both say decisions will be based on COVID-19 case levels and proposed no dates.

“We continue to believe the face-to-face classroom is the best classroom environment for most students and we remain committed to providing parents with a face-to-face and remote classroom choice,” Cobb wrote in a Tuesday announcement.

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