ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia’s governor said Monday that the reopening of some of the state’s schools amid the coronavirus outbreak has gone well — except for the widely shared photos of students crowded together without masks.
“I think quite honestly this week went real well other than a couple of virtual photos,” Gov. Brian Kemp said at a news conference with U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams.
Democrats strongly pushed back against the assessment that school reopenings were proceeding safely, blaming Kemp and President Donald Trump for failures.
The viral photos showed students standing shoulder to shoulder in crowded hallways at North Paulding High School northwest of Atlanta and squeezed together for first-day-of-school senior photos at two high schools in nearby Cherokee County. None of the students wore masks.
North Paulding officials later announced that six students and three staff members had tested positive for the coronavirus, and that the school would be closed Monday and Tuesday while the building is disinfected.
Cherokee County officials reported that 12 students and two staff members from a dozen schools tested positive for the virus during their first week back. As a result, they said, more than 250 students with potential exposure had been sent home to quarantine for two weeks.
Hospitalizations for the coronavirus have declined about 10% since peaking at the end of July, according to figures from the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Kemp cited the downward trend during a news conference Monday held to showcase a large new coronavirus testing site that recently opened near Atlanta’s airport.
“As I’ve said before, we have come a long way, but we are not out of the woods yet and we cannot take our foot off the gas,” Kemp said.
More than 80 Georgia school districts have opened or plan to open for some kind of in-person instruction by Aug. 17, according to figures kept by school reform group GeorgiaCAN.
“It’s so risky and our caseload is not being effectively managed, that there is just no way right now that we can sensibly open schools for in-person instruction,” said Gwinnett County school board member Everton Blair, a Democrat. “Then you see evidence of the very same thing in counties across the state, where immediately, the first day that they open, they’re immediately quarantined.”
Gwinnett County is starting virtual instruction this week, but has said some students could return to campus by the end of the month, depending on infection levels. Gwinnett County is Georgia's largest school system, with more than 180,000 students.
Kemp and the surgeon general both remarked that Georgia can expect to see newly reported cases as schools and businesses reopen.
“I want the people of Georgia to know that we don’t have to wait until we get a vaccine," Adams said. “We don’t have to hide until we get a miracle therapeutic.”
But he also warned that students need to follow health officials' guidance, including social distancing and wearing masks.
“To the kids in schools, I want you to understand: If you want prom in person next year, if you want to go to spring break, if you want an in-person graduation, then we need you to work together,” he said.
Adams also appealed to major league sports teams to help persuade young people to wear masks.
“We need the Atlanta Falcons, we need the Atlanta Hawks, we need all the influencers out there who these teens look toward to be out promoting mask wearing, to have masks with cool designs on them, to make it a cool, a fun and exciting thing to do,” he said. “And if we do that we’ll see a lot more kids wearing masks than not wearing masks.”
Georgia state Rep. Beth Moore, a Peachtree Corners Democrat, set up an email address for anonymous complaints and said she’s gotten hundreds, mostly from teachers. She said too many principals, superintendents and school board members are “not taking this seriously.”
“The people that will suffer from this are the people we should hold near and dear to us, which is our teachers and our children,” Moore said.
Georgia has recorded more than 1,000 deaths in the past three weeks, and is on pace to reach 10,000 deaths from COVID-19 by the end of the year.