More than 860 students and teachers from a single school district in Georgia are currently quarantining after dozens of COVID-19 infections were reported when in-person classes resumed a week ago.
Schools in the Cherokee County district have asked 826 students and 42 teachers to quarantine for 14 days due to possible coronavirus exposure just six days into the new school year.
The 42,000-student district, which is just outside Atlanta, said on Monday that 38 students and 12 teachers had tested positive for the virus in the week that in-person classes resumed.
Those who have been asked to quarantine were identified as part of the district’s contact tracing efforts as people who may have come into close contact with an infected student or teacher.
The school district drew national attention last week when a photo of students at Etowah High School squeezed together for first-day-of-school senior photos without wearing masks.
Cherokee County Schools Superintendent Brian Hightower sent a letter home to parents saying that many of the seniors in those photos ‘wear masks routinely’ even though the school doesn’t require them to.
Nearly 300 students at Etowah High School are currently quarantining.
The school district is posting information about all confirmed infections and quarantines on its website in a bid to be transparent.
‘As made clear in our reopening of school plan, we anticipated positive tests among students and staff could occur, which is why we put a system into place to quickly contact trace, mandate quarantines, notify parents and report cases and quarantines to the entire community,’ Cherokee spokeswoman Barbara Jacoby said.
‘We are not hesitating to quarantine students and staff who have had possible exposure – even if the positive test was prompted by possible exposure rather than symptoms.’
No statewide mask mandate is currently in place in Georgia but the Cherokee County school district has encouraged students to wear them.
It comes as Georgia’s governor Brian Kemp said on Monday that the reopening of some of the state’s schools amid the pandemic outbreak had 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. Kemp said at a news conference with US Surgeon General Jerome Adams.
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.
Democrats, however, strongly pushed back against the assessment that school reopenings were proceeding safely, blaming Kemp and President Donald Trump for failures.
More than 80 Georgia school districts have opened or plan to open for some kind of in-person instruction by August 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.’