ATLANTA — As politicians pushed for children to return to the classroom, some teachers and parents pleaded with them to keep school buildings shuttered until the coronavirus was under control. 

In the weeks counting down to school reopenings in August, State Superintendent Richard Woods’ email inbox was filled with fears of teachers, parents and school staff — many with pre-existing conditions that could lead to fatal outcomes if they contracted COVID-19.

“Scared. I’m scared,” a teacher, with a pre-existing condition as well as children with health problems, wrote in one of the emails. “That is the main adjective that describes how I feel. The other one vying for the top spot is powerless.”

Overwhelmingly, parents and teachers — from Georgia counties urban and rural — asked for delayed start dates, mandatory masks or all-virtual platforms for the 2020-21 academic year.

As state leaders deferred to local control for decisions made on how to return to classrooms, some teachers described instances where local school administrators dismissed health concerns or tried to keep COVID-19 cases under wraps.

A small portion advocated for a return to classrooms during the two-month span — nearly all parents of children with special needs who cannot adapt to virtual learning and require an in-person environment to thrive.

For this story CNHI obtained, through an open records request, and reviewed emails sent to Woods from July 1 through the end of August. The emails referenced in this report are the messages received by Woods based on review of public records but the sources of those messages have not been independently verified. 

During the summer months, White House Coronavirus Task Force reports listed Georgia in the “red zone” for new cases and test positivity rate. At the same time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study detailing a COVID-19 outbreak at a North Georgia overnight camp that showed the virus spread pervasively through attendees and staff of all ages.

Nevertheless in mid-July, Gov. Brian Kemp was steadfast in his opinion that children should return to a traditional learning environment.

“There's bad outcomes of not having kids and classes from a nutrition standpoint, child abuse, human trafficking … so I'm a believer that kids need to be in the classroom,” Kemp said during a press conference. “We're working with the schools to do that and we're working with them to make sure that their communities, their parents and their teachers are comfortable with that."

But emails reveal many teachers and parents were not comfortable with returning and described it as “premature," “reckless" and "dangerous."

Across Georgia, teachers wrote they had to choose between their livelihood and their health.

“Teachers like me are pondering the decision to stay or go across this nation because their districts have not gone far enough to ensure the health and safety of their students and staff. The bottom line is that we should not have to make this decision,” one teacher wrote.

Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said a lot of educators are near their breaking point while there's an overarching lack of transparency about the number of COVID-19 cases in schools — leaving teachers and parents unable to make informed decisions about the level of safety.

"There are challenges in virtual (learning). But that is the safe way. We continue to have concerns about students and educators and students' families and educators' families becoming sick, because our buildings are open," Morgan told CNHI. "At this point, educators are extremely concerned that the reporting of cases and the reporting of how many staff members and students are quarantined, across the state is inaccurate."

Local control

With public officials deferring to local control, schools and districts have been responsible for making the decision to return to brick and mortar buildings or not.

Like early coronavirus restrictions in Georgia cities and counties, schools are a patchwork of in-person, virtual and hybrid-learning environments across the state.

The Department of Education with the help of the Department of Public Health issued guidance for schools in planning to restart classes, although no stipulations were mandated.

"Superintendent Woods has encouraged local school districts to engage parents and educators in restart planning, provide options that have buy-in and support from stakeholders, continue to assess and enhance our efforts, and admit when those efforts fall short," Meghan Frick, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said in a statement.

Shortly after some schools reopened in August, Kemp made it clear he would not order a statewide mask mandate for classrooms, although Department of Education guidance recommends facial coverings within schools.

“I am not understanding why masks are such a big deal that the school system is risking lives over it,” one parent wrote to Woods.

Since school buildings have reopened, many had to shut down temporarily for cleaning after COVID-19 cases were reported and hundreds of students and staff across the state were quarantined.

Georgia made national headlines in August after a photo from North Paulding High School in Dallas went viral; the photo showed a hallway crowded with students — but very few wearing masks. The school shut down temporarily a short time later due to COVID-19 cases.

By Aug. 11, Cherokee County School District had more than 1,000 students, teachers and staff in quarantine after opening for in-person learning a week earlier.

If the Department of Education receives a high level of complaints regarding a certain school or district, Frick said it flags the issues with local administrators. Investigations into high level of COVID-19 cases would fall under the health department's responsibilities.

Across the board, emails from teachers and parents recognized the importance of putting children back in schools, but asked the superintendent to "err on the side of caution."

"We all want this so badly," on teacher wrote. "But the last thing we need is to act on wishful thinking and open the schools before they are as safe as possible. Because our lives are on the line like never before, teachers have to be part of the solution."

Silence on spread

But information about COVID-19 counts in Georgia schools has been kept under wraps. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported this past week that Georgia health officials have decided not to release information about coronavirus infections per school, after it started requiring reports from schools last month.

The Department of Public Health has reported a total of 306 outbreaks in schools — falling only behind nursing homes and long-term care facilities for the setting with the most outbreaks.

For the week of Sept. 20-26, of the 106 new outbreaks recorded, 28 were in schools. From Sept. 6-12, 39 of the state's 93 new outbreaks were reported in schools.

While teachers suspect information is going underreported, Morgan said they're afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation. Often teachers who call Morgan for help won't even give her their names.

"I spoke with a principal in South Georgia who said, 'according to the school district there are no cases at my school. I’m at home and I have COVID-19,'" Morgan said. "And she knew she was not the only one in her building. So no cases? Obviously that was incorrect because she was sick.”

In an email to Woods, one employee at a school in Bartow County said educators were “scared to lose their jobs” after an elementary school administrator “warned” against them speaking out after an “entire leadership team” tested positive for COVID-19 after three days of pre-planning.

"We are not ready," the Bartow employee wrote in an email to the state education department. "Teachers are scared for our students' safety and our own. Our county will not help us.”

According to the department, alternative options for teachers with pre-existing conditions are under the authority of local school systems. The state guidance recommends districts work with their attorneys and human resources to offer alternative measures for teachers who are more vulnerable to the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a new report Tuesday that says since March, more than 277,000 COVID-19 cases in children have been reported across the U.S. The new data shows children ages 12-17 are twice as likely to catch COVID-19 than younger kids.

While hospitalizations and deaths in school-aged children were low, the report said, Hispanic and Black children and children with underlying conditions were more frequently hospitalized or admitted to ICUs, showing some children may be at increased risk for severe illness.

"My year-old son has a heart condition, I had heart surgery," one parent wrote in an email to Woods. "I am also a widow. I’m all he has.”

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