School mask policies: A study in contrasts

By Annie Waldman and Heather Vogell

This article comes from ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. 

On an August morning in Emanuel County in eastern Georgia, hundreds of children bounded off freshly cleaned school buses and out of their parents’ cars. They were greeted by the principal, teachers and staff at Swainsboro Middle School, who hadn’t seen them in four months. Before allowing the children to enter, a longtime receptionist beamed a temperature gun at their foreheads and checked for violations of the public school’s strict dress code: mostly neutral colors, nothing tight and no shoulders exposed.

Masks were optional, and about half of the children wore them. So did the receptionist, but only sporadically, according to several teachers.

Within a couple of days, the receptionist was out sick. Another receptionist called in sick as well. Both had caught the coronavirus, according to social media posts. In the ensuing weeks, a wave of cases would rush through the building — an outbreak for which district leaders blamed the community rather than the lack of a mask mandate in the schools. At least nine middle school teachers would be infected, including four along a single hallway; one would spend four weeks on a ventilator, fighting for her life. More than 100 students were quarantined because of positive cases or exposure. Within the first two months of school, the county would have one of the highest proportions of school-age COVID-19 cases in the state.

“Not everything that could have been done or should have been done was being done in the school system to stop the spread,” said Dr. Cedric Porter, a local physician who pushed in vain for a mask requirement. “Everybody seemed to be intent on keeping it secret that there was a serious problem.”

When another school district in Georgia, 200 miles northwest of Emanuel, reopened in early September, the rules and results were far different. The city of Marietta required masks, with even pre-kindergarteners donning them inside school buildings. It trained its own contact tracers. During its first month of classes, it reported no school-related transmissions of COVID-19.

The divide between Emanuel and Marietta reflects a national split over how far the government should go in imposing public health measures to combat the coronavirus. As COVID-19 cases skyrocket, political leaders have struggled to balance concerns about individual freedom and harm to the economy with the imperative of curbing the virus’ spread.

Photo by Bita Honarvar, special to ProPublica

Nowhere does this gulf seem wider than in the debate over whether to require students and school staff to wear masks. While Dr. Anthony Fauci and other health experts have overwhelmingly promoted masks as an effective, research-backed tactic — and one that works best only if everybody participates — some policymakers have maintained that whether to wear them should remain a personal choice. President Donald Trump has opposed mask mandates, as have many Republican legislators.

The result is a patchwork of safety protocols colored by political views. Although several states in the past weeks have belatedly mandated masks, 11, including Georgia, don’t require students to cover their noses and mouths — even when gathered indoors, in small classrooms or in close contact during sporting events, ProPublica found. The states left the matter to local districts. Schools in only about a third of Georgia’s counties require masks.

No other precaution short of closing schools — a drastic measure that can set children back academically and developmentally, and deprive them of free meals and health care — is likely to be as effective as a mask mandate, experts say. Allowing staff and students to forgo them contradicts guidance from the CDC on reopenings.

“Masks are the most essential of all, especially because social distancing, quite frankly, is a challenge in most schools,” said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital and the editor in chief of JAMA Pediatrics.

“The bare minimum for the protection of kids and teachers needs to be universal masking and some increased ventilation,” said Dr. Joshua Barocas, an assistant professor at Boston University School of Medicine and an infectious diseases physician at Boston Medical Center. “If you can’t do that, you have no business being open.”

An emerging body of research has shown that younger children in primary schools typically experience mild or no symptoms of the virus and are less likely to transmit it. However, older children, particularly those in middle and high school, appear to have higher transmission rates, CDC researchers found in early October. The incidence among children ages 12 to 17 was about twice that of kids 5 to 11.

“Young persons might be playing an increasingly important role in community transmission,” the researchers warned.

In Georgia, the divide over masks sent school districts such as Emanuel and Marietta on two distinct trajectories this fall, data suggests. Children tended to make up a smaller proportion of total COVID-19 cases in counties with mask mandates in schools, a ProPublica examination of reopenings in Georgia revealed. Conversely, in counties that did not require masks in the classroom, children tended to make up a larger proportion of cases.

Overall, in Georgia counties where school-age children represented less than 6 percent of all coronavirus cases, roughly 80 percent of school districts required masks. In counties where children made up 10 percent or more of cases, 80 percent of districts did not mandate masks.

To be sure, in counties where they make up larger proportions of virus cases, children may be more likely to interact without masks outside school, in homes, playgrounds and other spots. But the findings suggest that a community’s attitude toward face coverings — as reflected in its school policies — plays an important role in transmission.

“If what you’re really showing is the places where they wore masks are doing better, that’s really the bottom line,” said Dr. Benjamin Linas, an associate professor of infectious diseases at Boston University School of Medicine. “Whether it’s specifically masks in schools or not is almost just like an academic question.”

Marietta classroom

As Georgia schools began reopening this past summer, they received mixed signals on whether to require masks. In phone calls with school superintendents, public health officials advocated mask wearing. But Gov. Brian Kemp refused to mandate their use in schools, or anywhere else, even suing the city of Atlanta to prevent it from requiring masks. (He later dropped the suit and has encouraged Georgians to wear masks.)

The Georgia superintendent of schools, Richard Woods, said through a spokesman that he lacks authority to mandate masks. He “has publicly encouraged mask wearing, has modeled that in school visits and public meetings, and specifically let districts know it can be addressed through updated dress codes,” the spokesman said. “He continues to encourage any mitigation efforts to decrease the spread, while allowing local districts to do what they think is best for their communities.”

Teachers’ groups favor a statewide requirement. “The more conservative counties are the counties that are [saying], ‘We’re going to be in school five days face-to-face, no masks are required,’” said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, a professional association that sued the state in early October over COVID-19 safety (the lawsuit is pending). Political views, she said, are “making it very hard for students and educators to be safe.”

In the absence of a mask mandate, the Georgia Department of Public Health recorded 441 outbreaks of coronavirus tied to K-12 schools through Nov. 14. The department, which defines an outbreak as more than the expected number of cases in one place within a two-week period, would not say how many cases those outbreaks included or where they occurred.

Comparing school outbreaks between states is difficult because public health departments count and categorize cases differently. But in Illinois, a more populous state that does require masks in schools, the Public Health Department reported 10 outbreaks in schools during the 30 days ending Nov. 6. Illinois defines an outbreak as five or more cases where people from different households may have shared exposure on school grounds. And three weeks after the October reopening of schools in New York City, the nation’s largest district, which requires masks, only 20 staff members and eight students tested positive out of more than 16,000 tests. (New York shut down schools last week and returned to all-remote learning as the rate of positive tests in the city rose.)

States that do not mandate masks for schools, leaving the decision up to individual districts:

  • Alaska
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Iowa
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • New Hampshire
  • Oklahoma
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee

There’s no available tally of school teachers or staff in Georgia who have died of COVID-19, but ProPublica was able to identify one such death.

Julie Carter was an employee of Appling County school district, which does not require masks.

An administrative assistant in the high school’s special education department, Carter also helped organize the local Special Olympics. Students “were her whole heart,” said her husband, Jimmy.

Carter, an Appling County native, was eager to work at school this fall despite having respiratory problems. Classes didn’t start until Aug. 17, but staff returned several weeks earlier. Carter, who had her own office, put on a mask when people stopped by, her husband said. The mask offered her limited protection, but experts say if her visitor wasn’t wearing one, she was still at risk.

Carter family at homecoming

By mid-August, she was so weak that her husband took her to a local hospital. Later that month, she was airlifted to a hospital in Jacksonville, Florida. She died on Aug. 30 before her family, which was driving there, could arrive. She was 67.

The high school posthumously named her grand marshal of its homecoming celebration, giving her family a quilt with “ACHS Homecoming 2020” embossed on it during a pep rally. The school website paid tribute to her: “She will always be remembered for being a vital part of the life of ACHS and served the school with a kind and humble heart.”

Her death, though, did not bring a reversal of the county’s mask policy: Photos on the high school’s website show clusters of students posing in Halloween costumes in the hallways, without masks. School district officials did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Emanuel County, 90 miles west of Savannah, is a rural expanse dotted with pine forests and cotton fields. The county’s winding roads brim with American flags and Trump 2020 placards. It’s a Trump stronghold; the president received about 70 percent of the county’s votes on Nov. 3.

Many of the county’s 22,000 residents struggle to make ends meet, with households earning less than $40,000 on average. Only one in eight adults has a college degree. The school system is the region’s largest employer, followed by a local poultry plant and Walmart. More than 4,000 students attend the county’s schools, which include one primary, two elementary, one middle, a high school and a combined middle-high school. About half of the students are white, 43% are African-American and 7 percent are Hispanic.

The school district had four months to determine how to reopen after Kemp closed schools across the state in early April and classes went remote. The board asked Superintendent Kevin Judy to develop a plan.

Judy, who has led the district since 2014, rose from a life sciences teacher to a principal to Emanuel’s superintendent, earning a doctorate in educational leadership and administration. While he opened all the district’s schools on Aug. 3 as scheduled, he empathized with families who hesitated to return to in-person schooling. Across the county, 30% of families chose virtual learning.

“My wife, she’s had breast cancer,” he said. “She’s a kindergarten teacher, and it’s something we worry about too. She teaches face-to-face every day with 20 to 22 kindergarteners in a classroom and has had a great year and wouldn’t change it for anything.”

Before reopening, Judy said, he sought guidance from the county Health Department and local physicians. He also held “informal discussions” with the school board about whether to require masks. They decided not to, without a public debate or vote. Instead, they simply encouraged the use of masks.

Kevin Judy

“The parents raised their kids, and that’s their decision to make what they feel comfortable with,” Judy said.

The county Health Department supported the school board. “You have to look at your community and see what’s best,” said Jennifer Harrison, a nurse manager at the department, who works directly with Judy to trace school cases. “They made it an optional thing and I agree with that. You’re not going to appease everybody every time no matter what you do.”

School board member Johnny Parker, who spent 40 years as a teacher and counselor, has worn a mask to the past four board meetings. Nevertheless, he said in a mid-October interview that masks should be optional. Although Trump had been hospitalized for COVID-19 two weeks earlier, Parker cited the president’s habits to defend the district’s policy. “The president, he doesn’t wear a mask.”

School reopenings, Parker said, had no effect on transmission rates. “Protests are spreading the virus more than the schools,” he said. “People who protest don’t have them on. The ones that are rioting and destroying people’s property, they don’t have them on. That might be the spread.”

On the south side of Swainsboro, the seat of Emanuel County, winds the Tiger Trail, a pine-wooded paved stretch where all of the town’s schools are located. More than 600 students attend the one-story, sand-brick middle school. COVID-19 awareness posters line its hallways, showing children how to spot symptoms and encouraging them to socially distance.

Photo by Bita Honarvar, special to ProPublica

The virus penetrated the school before the students returned. During a staff planning week, two employees tested positive for the virus, a middle school teacher said.

“When it starts up before the kids even get back, that should be a signal,” the teacher said. All current teachers at the middle school who were interviewed asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.

After the receptionists fell ill and a teacher went home with symptoms at the end of the first week of school, some staff members hoped that the administration would take strong action, such as closing the middle school for cleaning or widespread quarantining. (One receptionist declined to comment, and the other did not respond to interview requests.) But the school remained open and contract tracing was limited, with only a handful of children sent home to quarantine, said four staff members. “It was just business as usual,” a teacher said.

As schools reopened, however, throngs of children, parents and grandparents began pouring into Porter’s office, a one-story brick clinic in central Swainsboro, a block away from the county’s only hospital.

Porter, one of the few African-American physicians in the county, had moved to Emanuel 33 years before to start a family practice. Having grown up with severe asthma in a small Georgia town, he understood the importance of high-quality health care in rural communities. When the pandemic began in March, he scoured studies in The New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA and other top-flight medical journals, preparing himself, and his county, for the virus’ arrival.

“We had lots of cases amongst the children, and then the parents were getting it, and some of the grandparents were getting it, and we were having hospitalizations among some of the adults that got sick,” Porter said.

Data from the state’s Health Department confirms Porter’s experience. The county had nearly as many coronavirus cases among school-age children in the first month of school as in the first five months of the pandemic. Harrison, from the county’s Health Department, said that the district has had between 10 and 50 outbreaks since schools opened but could not be more specific.

Yet few Emanuel County parents were aware of the surge. For the first three weeks of school, the superintendent did not report the number of cases among staff and students on the district’s website.

“We are transparent, we’re not trying to hide anything,” Judy told ProPublica. “Did I report data the first three weeks of school? No, truthfully, it never crossed my mind.”

“I just felt angry that this was handled in the way it was handled,” Porter said. “If people really knew how bad it had been, and how bad at times it gets, there would be more outcry and more of a problem keeping the schools open. People didn’t know the extent of the problem.”

Cedric Porter (Photo by Bita Honarvar)

Porter surveyed his pediatric patients and their families in an attempt to trace how they had acquired the disease. When children described what went on in school, he was startled. Many teachers and students were not wearing masks. Kids were crammed into classrooms with up to two dozen desks, 2 to 3 feet apart. Children often did not socially distance in hallways and cafeterias, despite a slew of signs reminding them to do so. Sports practice and games played on, with hardly any players or coaches masked. Students were sardined into buses, where they were required to wear face coverings, but often tucked them under their chins or hung them off their ears. Children sometimes ate lunch in classrooms with closed windows, allowing aerosolized particles to spread. And in some cases, an exposed student might be sent home for quarantine, but older or younger siblings might still attend class in another school.

Many of these practices disregarded recommendations from the CDC and the World Health Organization, which stressed the importance of consistent masking of children and staff; small classes with desks spaced 6 feet apart; staggered bell times to minimize crowding in hallways; limited mixing of student groups throughout the day; and thorough contact tracing. Schools can be opened relatively safely, numerous studies have found, but only with proper safeguards in place.

Concerned that keeping schools open without a mask mandate would foster the spread of the virus, Porter phoned the superintendent and asked him to reconsider. “If kids are going to be in school, everybody needs to wear masks,” he told Judy.

The superintendent told ProPublica that the district took proper precautions in opening schools: Custodians mist classrooms at breaks and frequently wipe down high-touch surfaces like door handles and light switches. Students socially distance in the halls. Every hallway has at least three hand washing stations. When children or staff test positive, school nurses work with the Health Department and use surveys to track anyone that might have been exposed. And siblings of sick children, he contended, are indeed quarantined.

Porter detailed his concerns in an impassioned op-ed in the local paper. “The science is clear that the way we’re doing things will lead to a large spike in cases,” he wrote, pleading for masking in schools. “We may not fear that students will get sick, but I promise you, too many teachers, paraprofessionals, and others will.”

The superintendent did not address why Porter’s recommendations weren’t followed. “He was saying what he felt to be factual,” Judy said.

English teacher Shonray Brooks was nervous about going back to school. She had respiratory difficulties that required an inhaler, making her more vulnerable to the virus. But she had no choice. The district required teachers in core subjects to teach in person. While some states have strong unions that have helped teachers negotiate for protections during the pandemic, Georgia does not permit collective bargaining, leaving Brooks with little recourse.

Brooks grew up in Emanuel. Her mother died when she was 7, and her grandmother stepped in to raise her and her siblings. Education took center stage. Brooks became the family’s “encyclopedia-dictionary,” said her younger sister Shonte Smith, as well as a cornerstone of the high school debate team and the preferred tutor for failing football players. After graduating from Georgia Southern University, she returned to Emanuel to teach.

Brooks taught in the district for 15 years, often arriving before 7:30 a.m. to prepare lessons, staying late to grade papers and help train the step team, and on exam days, she’d whip up grits and breakfast casseroles in her crockpot for her students.

Shonte, who works as a hair stylist in Warner Robins, Georgia, two hours away, knew that nothing would keep her sister from her students, not even a pandemic. “It was a COVID cesspool,” Shonte said, but “those kids meant the world to her.”

When school started, Brooks was in quarantine, with only her cat, Sassy, to keep her company. A family member had tested positive for the virus, and while she hadn’t had much contact with her, she was cautious. But after testing negative, Brooks began teaching, donning both a cloth mask and a face shield.

Shonray Brooks (left) and Shonte Smith

In her first week back, Brooks and several other staff attended the school board’s monthly meeting, hoping members would discuss how to combat the pandemic. In the cavernous high school cafeteria, Judy and the board sat before the socially distanced attendees. Of the board members, only Parker wore a mask. They talked about the virus for less than five minutes, according to Deanna Ryan, a former Swainsboro middle school science teacher who attended the meeting. Ryan had recently started teaching in a nearby charter school, which had instituted a mask mandate.

“We have roughly fifteen employees and four students that are at home positive,” reported the superintendent, according to the meeting minutes. “The student transmissions did not take place at school but through family situations. With our employees, the majority happened outside of school. We have had some that did occur with employees not following guidelines during pre-planning.”

By the end of that week, Brooks felt lethargic and her body ached. She stayed home from school that Friday and got tested. She stayed in bed most of the weekend, soreness spreading through her body, her lungs heavy. “All of the symptoms you hear about, she started having them,” said Shonte, who had a friend deliver Gatorade and soup to her sister’s front porch. Brooks brought the care package inside but was so exhausted that she had to rest on her couch on the way to the kitchen. Even though she was ailing, she managed to finish her final paper for an online master’s degree in education technology at Central Michigan University.

After three days, she received her results of her COVID test. She had the virus. Less than 12 hours later, she was rushed to the emergency room of Emanuel Medical Center, struggling to breathe.

Lockheed Elementary screening

The first day of school in Marietta looked much different from Emanuel. Masks were as common as backpacks on students stepping off buses, their waves and thumbs-ups compensating for hidden smiles as grown-ups snapped photos.

The universal masks reflected a change of heart by Grant Rivera, who has been superintendent of schools in Marietta for four years and often sports a polo shirt emblazoned with his schools’ trademark oversized M. Marietta, a city of 61,000 residents north of Atlanta, has its own school district but is part of suburban Cobb County, which is trending blue; Joe Biden carried the county over Trump by more than 14 percentage points.

When Rivera put forth a plan in June to offer students both virtual and in-person options to return to school in August, he didn’t propose a mask requirement. Parents reached out to Rivera, urging him to reconsider mandating masks. “Quite candidly, with every conversation I was having I found it harder and harder to defend why we weren’t requiring masks,” Rivera said. “I felt like I was in quicksand. I couldn’t even convince myself of the argument.”

Rivera has two young children and a formidable resume — with stints as a special education teacher, a principal and a chief of staff in the Cobb County district — along with a doctorate in education with an emphasis on school law. What he is not, he readily acknowledges, is a health expert, so he turned to local health departments and the CDC. The professionals’ advice: Mask up.

As cases and deaths soared statewide in July, the school board delayed the start of in-person schooling. By early August, Rivera had a new plan: Marietta would begin in-person schooling in September for the youngest students, as long as cases continued to drop from their July peak. Everyone would wear masks — from bus drivers to teachers to students to central office staff. The only exception would be students with a doctor’s letter documenting a valid health reason. “We started with masks, and we built everything else around that,” he said.

Grant Rivera

The school board unanimously backed his position. Chairwoman Allison Gruehn said conservative parents had been “very disappointed” with the district’s decision to start school remotely, and they were willing to accept a mask mandate since it meant that their children could learn in person.

As Marietta hashed out its safety protocol, Paulding County schools a short drive west opened without a mask mandate. Photos of maskless students packing North Paulding High School’s hallways went viral on social media, drawing national attention. Paulding reported 41 positive cases of students or staff during its first week of school, including 24 at North Paulding High, which was closed temporarily.

By the following week, the Cherokee County district just to the north had asked as many as 1,200 students and staff members to quarantine because of possible exposure to the virus. That system had also declined to mandate masks. After those uproars, Rivera told parents during a virtual meeting that “I don’t want to subject our kids to what we’re seeing in other districts.”

Few parents objected to Marietta’s mask policy. Two families emailed him asking that their kids be exempted, he said, vaguely citing “medical risks associated with masks.” Rivera relayed their concerns to public health officials, who assured him that masks didn’t pose such dangers for children. One of the families withdrew a first-grader from the district.

Amy Barnes was among the Marietta parents who pleaded with Rivera to reverse the district’s initial decision to make masks voluntary. Barnes, who had completed a contact-tracing course, believes that masks are an essential, science-based part of COVID-19 prevention.

She was worried about sending her three children back to school and had thought about going all-remote, until Rivera imposed the mask mandate. “What sealed the deal for my husband and I was that Marietta was requiring masks,” Barnes said. “We felt that masks were the only way to mitigate the spread in schools because it’s really hard to socially distance in classrooms.”

Still, Barnes wondered how her youngest, a fifth-grader, would fare. He’d worn masks in stores, but never for seven hours straight. He started in-person classes in early October during the second phase of Mariettta’s reopening. She was relieved when he came home his first day and reported that wearing a covering all day was “not that bad.” He hasn’t complained since, she said.

Marietta mom Shamika Berger was reluctant to send her first-grader, Elijah Brown, back to school because of worries about the virus. She, too, had watched the news coverage of Paulding and Cherokee counties. “I was like, ‘Nobody is taking this seriously,’ ” she said.

But Berger works during school hours in the deli at Walmart, and Elijah — like so many young children — had struggled staying focused in virtual class in the spring. So, with Mickey Mouse and Spider-Man masks at the ready, Elijah returned to Dunleith Elementary in early September. He, too, didn’t seem bothered by wearing the mask all day, she said. “He was just so excited to be back in school,” Berger said.

Marietta Center for Advanced Academics

Unlike Emanuel, Marietta let teachers choose whether to return to the classroom or teach from home until Oct. 5, when more students would be coming back. The mask mandate helped reassure most teachers that it was safe to go back to school.

Second-grade teacher Libby Coan said the kids in her classroom at Hickory Hills Elementary have had no problem keeping their masks on. She hasn’t had any pushback from parents, either. “I think their parents just want them in school,” she said.

First-grade teacher Jenny Brems said she, too, was glad that the district didn’t leave the mask decision up to parents. “I didn’t want it to be a fudgy thing,” she said.

Kids need reminders sometimes, she said, but have otherwise adjusted fine. The district allows “mask breaks” outside, she said, adding, “It’s not as traumatic as some people were afraid of.”

Wearing a mask all day in the classroom, though, has required extra effort when she teaches phonics to her students at A.L. Burruss Elementary, she said. Watching a teacher’s mouth form sounds helps kids learn how to read. Brems said she is using a clear mask her district provided, and she has become accustomed to gesturing, enunciating and projecting her voice more than usual.

She was hoarse after the first few days, she said. “I’m chugging the water like I’ve never done before,” Brems said. But the measures have kept her safe, she added — and allowed the kids to continue learning.

Still, opposition to the measures Marietta took could be found close by. Parent Jolynn Dupree, who lives in Acworth about a half-hour drive from Marietta, objected when the Cobb County district mandated masks. In July, Dupree started a Facebook group called “Masses Against Masks” for Cobb County parents who “demand that their schools not require masks while exercising their right to an education.” The group has 947 members.

“I felt like you have no voice if you are against the masks — you are looked at like you don’t like people, you want their grandma to die,” said Dupree. Her husband’s 97-year-old grandfather died of the virus in a nursing home in Marietta, but she and other family members caught it and recovered, she said. With a generally high survival rate, she said, the harm of forcing children to wear masks for seven or eight hours a day outweighs the benefit. Masks make it hard for children to breathe in steamy Georgia weather and to read facial cues, and the mandate puts too much pressure on them, she said.

“I don’t want to hurt people,” she said, “but I’m not going to psychologically hurt my kids.”

Dupree and her husband withdrew their four school-age children — who range from first to sixth grades — from the Cobb system. They now go to a private school, without masks, twice a week and are home-schooled the other days.

She said she might reconsider her stance if her children were in high school, since teenagers are more likely to spread the disease. But friends of hers in Paulding and Cherokee counties — which don’t have mask mandates — are doing fine, she said.

“When I hang out with my friends, their kids are living totally normal lives and everything seems good,” Dupree said.

When Shonray Brooks arrived at the hospital, the doctors transferred her to the intensive care unit, where she received supplementary oxygen and the antiviral medication remdesivir. Doctors monitored her for several days, examining her for blood clots and heart irregularities, common secondary symptoms of the virus. Her relatives couldn’t visit her, so they tried to keep her spirits up with text messages. “I love you, Sissy,” Shonte texted her. “I’m praying for you.”

Despite the treatments, Brooks’ condition deteriorated. Doctors decided to medevac her to a hospital in Augusta, the nearest city. By the time her helicopter landed, she was unresponsive. She was immediately placed on a ventilator.

Her friends and colleagues learned of her plight from her sister’s Facebook updates. Though school nurses spoke with several of Brooks’ students, the administration did not tell staff who had the virus, four employees said. “They were tight-lipped about everybody that had it,” said a teacher. “I’m not saying they should tell us details, but they should tell us if it was someone in the building that was around a lot of people.”

Several staff members told ProPublica that they believe the school was trying to conceal the extent of the spread. “Everybody knows, but no one knows through official channels,” said another teacher. “The general sense was, we’re not going to talk about it. We’re not going to tell you and I think at that point, teachers realized no one’s going to tell us if we’ve been exposed. No one’s gonna know until it’s too late.”

At a school board meeting in September, the teacher Deanna Ryan stepped up to the lectern. After flipping through choropleth maps from the state’s Health Department, showing the board how the virus was inundating the county, she began to talk about Brooks. When Ryan first moved to Emanuel County, Brooks quickly took her under her wing. During the 11 years they taught together at the middle school, they had lunch nearly every day and worked on each other’s class projects.

“There’s a teacher that I know who’s fighting for her life,” Ryan said, her voice quivering with each word. “She was the person who would get me to calm down and breathe. And now she’s struggling to.” Her words choked by tears, she hurried out of the room.

Deanna Ryan (Photo by Bita Honarvar)

At least four more teachers at the middle school contracted COVID-19 after Brooks, including three other educators along the seventh-grade hallway. Students rotated through classrooms together. While teachers tried to assign them to the same seats in each class, students had a way of shifting seats to be closer to their friends, broadening the potential exposure.

“Five classes a day is five sets of germs coming in and out of my class,” said a teacher. “If they are a carrier, but they are not showing symptoms, you don’t even know that they are sick. They are still spreading the germs around.”

Over the first two months of school, more than 100 students were quarantined, teachers and parents said. “I was scared,” one teacher said. “We started out with 25 kids. After three weeks, it was down to five. Kids were testing positive.”

Judy said he doesn’t dispute that the number of students quarantined was in triple digits, but he doesn’t know the exact number. “I don’t even want to ballpark it,” he said. “If you’re within 6 feet of someone for more than a cumulative 15 minutes, then that’s who gets quarantined.”

By mid-September, the county had the fifth-highest per capita rate of the virus in the state over a two-week period. Yet the schools carried on almost like normal. The high school crowned its homecoming king and queen, and sports teams played and scrimmaged before cheering parents, few of whom covered their faces.

Parental opinion over a mask mandate was divided. “I believe there’s a real virus, but I don’t believe people are dying like they say,” said one opponent, Roy Beneteau, while watching his teenage son play soccer at the local rec center. Beneteau delivers hundreds of packages daily, does not wear a mask and still hasn’t contracted the disease, he said.

Nana Davis disagreed. Sitting apart from a scrum of parents, in a folding plastic chair on the edge of a field, she was watching her 12-year-old son’s football game. He suffers from asthma and was wearing a mask under his helmet.

“I don’t think [schools are] safe,” said Davis, who enrolled her son in virtual learning. “A lot of kids touch each other, some could come to school with it, and it could endanger an asthma patient.”

Swainsboro buses (Bita Honarvar)

Before the Emanuel school board’s October meeting, a photo was taken of members and the superintendent. Superintendent Judy donned a black mask for the picture and then quickly removed it. “I wanted to make sure everybody was able to hear,” he later said. Two of the six members who attended wore masks.

Only seven people were in the audience, including three district staff members and Ryan. Wearing her KN95 mask and a Kelly green rubber wristband with the words “Miss Brooks Strong” emblazoned on the edge, Ryan again spoke.

“Why are the adults who are leaders in this community not wearing masks?” she asked the superintendent and school board. “I’m still waiting for my friend to stand up. I would ask — no, I will plead — please wear your masks more often, especially when you’re close to people. You don’t know what you’re passing on.”

Neither the superintendent nor the board members responded. While they didn’t revisit a mask mandate, the superintendent suggested investing more than $175,000 to upgrade the district’s ventilation system with “needlepoint bipolar ionization,” which could cut down on dust, bacteria and viruses such as COVID-19. The district had just installed these devices in the middle school, Judy reported.

A couple of days after the meeting, Judy spoke with ProPublica for an hour in his office, which overlooks a parking lot in central Swainsboro. Seated behind his desk, he wore a black cotton mask and the green rubber wristband supporting Brooks. Shonte made and distributed the bracelets to honor her sister’s struggle, collecting donations for her care. Judy had ordered 100 for school staff.

Judy said he was confident that the schools had nothing to do with the outbreaks. “People were not as careful as they should have been,” he said. “They rode together in vehicles, went out to eat lunch and things like that caused it. The starting of school . . . there was not a spike there at all.”

Still, he acknowledged that it’s difficult to know how staff and students acquire the virus. “It could be that one of those teachers had it and shared it with the others. That’s a possibility. It could be that one of them got it from their home and the other one got it from their home. It could be a coincidence. That’s the nature of this,” he said.

Emanuel County

Many public health experts have compared the effort to compel Americans to wear masks during the pandemic to the decades-long struggle to persuade people to wear seatbelts. Detractors said that mandatory seat belt laws were ineffective, uncomfortable or against their individual rights. The same arguments that have frequently been invoked against masks, even though they not only protect the wearers but also the people around them.

Though he doesn’t equate them with face coverings, Judy said, he’s opposed to mandatory seat belts, too. “I am not harming anyone else,” he said.

The view of Emanuel County officials, he added, is that “the great part of living in this country is that it is left up to individual people to make what they feel is the best decision for them and their family.”

Despite the mask mandate and other precautions, Rivera still wasn’t satisfied that Marietta was doing enough to stop COVID-19. He wanted to stay on top of whether the coronavirus was being transmitted in schools. Having heard from the Public Health Department that its contact tracing and testing program was overwhelmed, he said, “we built our own internal system.”

School nurses and other staff gained certifications in contact tracing and the district hired a part-time worker to help them. The system now has tracers who speak English, Spanish and Portuguese and can make calls from 8 a.m. to midnight. The program is crucial for reassuring parents that the schools are safe, he said.

Marietta continued to phase in students’ return to the classroom; high school students were the last to go back, on Nov. 9. Rivera kept in close touch with local health officials, checking in three times a week by phone. “I sometimes feel like I talk to them more than I talk to my wife,” he said.

Like Emanuel, Marietta upgraded its air ventilation. Sports continued, too, with Marietta requiring anyone visiting its stadium to wear a mask. School officials walked through the stands during games, reminding spectators to keep their masks on or risk being ejected from the facility.

Cases were rising across the country, and a few surfaced in Marietta schools. The contact tracers looked into each one. The schools didn’t appear to be the source of any clusters, although with the virus spreading ever faster, it was getting harder to tell.

Shonte holds her sister Shonray’s hand in the hospital.

With Shonray in a medically induced coma, Shonte checked in with her sister’s nurses daily and visited twice a week, every Thursday and Sunday. During her visits, she massaged Shonray’s arms and legs and painted her nails — a clear varnish for her fingers and an electric shade of green for her toes. After more than two weeks in the ICU, Shonte prepared for the worst.

“She’s been here 16 days, and she’s had no improvement,” a doctor told her, explaining that her sister still had a fever from a possible infection. “We’re playing this day by day.”

Shonte called family members with the somber update. “We have to be strong,” she said through tears. “We have to keep praying. She shall live and not die.”

Photo by Bita Honarvar

Two days later, while Shonte was driving to Augusta to visit her sister, a nurse called. They only contacted her for urgent reasons, and so apprehensively, she picked up the phone.

“The doctor told me to call,” said the nurse. “Shonray is up.”

Shonte shrieked in her car, too elated for words. The nurse told her that Shonray was nodding in response to commands and breathing over the ventilator. When Shonte arrived at her sister’s room, she pulled a chair up to the bed. “You’ve been gone for a little while,” Shonte said, stroking her sister’s hand. “And I’m so happy you’re here.” Painfully, Brooks’ lips curled into a faint smile.

A couple weeks later, after being taken off the ventilator, Brooks started her rehabilitation, slowly beginning to speak, eat and write on her own again. In early November, while her sister was visiting, Brooks walked 150 feet. Brooks, who declined to be interviewed, told Shonte that she hopes to return to teaching as soon as she’s physically able. She also heard some welcome news: With the paper she had submitted at the start of her battle with COVID-19, she had earned enough credits for her online master’s degree.

On Nov. 20, she was released from the hospital and moved in with Shonte. Waiting for her at her sister’s house: her diploma and a cap and gown she had ordered during her rehab.

Annie Waldman is a reporter at ProPublica covering education. Heather Vogell, who formerly worked at the AJC, is a reporter at ProPublica.