Oconee County teachers worried about school policy amid virus spread

With COVID raging in Georgia, school districts across the state have faced tough decisions on how to handle instruction as the semester begins this week.

Hall County schools, for example, are starting out the semester this week with virtual-only classes.

Oconee County

But in Oconee County, also in northeast Georgia, kids are expected back in the classroom this week. And the school system has maintained its policy of not requiring students to wear masks.

That’s despite a high coronavirus positivity rate in the county. One in four COVID-19 tests in Oconee has come back positive over the past two weeks, according to state data. The county, on a state Public Health map, is colored in deep red, showing a high infection rate.

Two county teachers who requested anonymity told GHN that at least 10 teachers at Oconee County High School had recently tested positive. “We don’t feel supported in any way,’’ one of the two said.

The second added, “Teachers are scared to come to work and get sick.’’ The teachers requested that their names not be used, citing a fear that they might get in trouble with their employer.

A Facebook page devoted to Oconee schools and COVID-19, meanwhile, shows an intense interest among parents and others about masks and other virus-related topics.

Andrea Wellnitz, a parent of two teenagers in the county, said she started the page “to protect the kids and also to be a voice for teachers.’’

“There’s fear about speaking up’’ among educators in Oconee, she added. Wellnitz supports a student mask requirement and better virtual learning options. She said dozens of teachers in the county have contacted her about the district policies.

School system officials told GHN on Monday that the district “strongly encourages mask-wearing. It is required on buses and for employees if they are less than 6 feet from any other individual. There are signs inside and outside our schools reminding everyone to ‘Mask Up, Oconee.’ “

Only about half of students at Oconee County High School wear masks in the classroom, said one of the teachers interviewed by GHN.

“The word ‘mandate’ makes people rebel,’’ the teacher said, adding that while educators in the county are required to wear masks, some are not taking that rule seriously.

“I don’t want a million dollars a year,’’ the teacher said. “I just want a mask mandate.’’

It’s difficult even to get a COVID test scheduled in the area, the Oconee teachers added.

Different approaches

ProPublica, in a recent article on Georgia school mask-wearing policies, reported that only about a third of counties in the state require masks for their schools. Eleven states, 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.

(Gov. Brian Kemp has encouraged the wearing of face coverings but has declined to make it a requirement.)

The recent COVID surge has caused many school districts to change some of their practices. The state late last month set records for numbers of new COVID infections reported daily as well as virus hospitalizations.

At least 14 districts are beginning the year with virtual learning, or pushing back their second semester start date, according to the state Department of Education.

School districts in areas that lean more Republican tend to favor less strict requirements, said Dr. Harry Heiman, a public health expert at Georgia State University.

Atlanta Public Schools and DeKalb County schools, representing Democrat-majority areas, have not reopened schools for in-person learning. (Each has tentative plans to reopen, however.)

Schools play an important role beyond education, Heiman added.

“For working parents, schools are a safe place for their kids to be,’’ he said. They also provide socialization and a stable source of food. That puts a lot of pressure on school boards and how to bring kids back “in a way that’s safe and appropriate,’’ he said.

Parents should have options for virtual instruction, Heiman said. And there should be mask mandates for in-person learning, he said.

Not having that requirement “is a recipe for failure,’’ Heiman said.

State figures show an increase in the number of COVID outbreaks among Georgia schools.

And on Monday, dozens of Georgia teachers worked from the parking lot of a Henry County elementary school to protest an in-person planning day, the Macon Telegraph reported.

The demonstration outside Stockbridge Elementary also doubled as a memorial for kindergarten teacher LuAnn Burns, who died of COVID-19 last week. Her death followed that of Cobb County art teacher Patrick Key, who died Christmas Day.

Fear of more cases

Ironically, Oconee, which contains some Athens suburbs, has in the past been rated among the top five counties in Georgia on health indicators and outcomes. County Health Rankings considers factors other than medical care, such as education, transportation, housing and poverty, that influence how long and how well people live.

Oconee County Schools said the system has “up-to-date data on COVID cases and resulting quarantines. Today, we reopened our distance learning window and parents have the opportunity to opt back into distance learning this week. Regarding quarantine policies, we will not enact practices beyond what is recommended by health officials.’’

Wellnitz and the teachers interviewed by GHN said the schools’ quarantine policies don’t go far enough to protect both educators and students.

Nearby counties are taking different steps in school schedules.

Jackson County Schools are resuming classes with an alternating day schedule. “This will allow us to reduce the potential of quarantined students as a result of close contacts while providing all students with partial in-person learning. We will evaluate our data weekly and resume a full time in-person schedule as soon as possible.’’

The county schools added, “We will enforce the wearing of masks for all staff and students.”

The Clarke County School System,  which includes the city of Athens, reverted to online learning for all students last month. The move affected students in pre-K through eighth grade; high school students were already learning remotely. Online learning will extend into next year through Jan. 18, the Athens Banner-Herald reported.

An anonymous Oconee County student posted on the Facebook page (called Safety First – Reopening Schools Group) about being worried about going back to school.

“On top of that, there were New Year parties, family vacations, and large get-togethers. I believe that Oconee is at risk for a COVID spike.’’

The student mentioned Oconee County High School’s football team, which played in a state championship game, falling to Pierce County.

Photos from the game showed a contrast with what’s happening at college and NFL football stadiums across the country.

Many students and coaches were pictured not wearing masks on their faces.