Year of Fear, Chapter 24: To school or not to school—a burning question

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Students in the Bibb County School System have among the highest levels of poverty in the nation. That makes the decision of how to reopen this fall very difficult for the school board. 

Many families don’t have internet access, computers, or iPads. While the district would provide computers or tablets, the student’s home must have internet access to be eligible for digital instruction. Many teachers are not comfortable or skilled in digital instruction. And though digital learning was an option, registration for it closed in mid-July. The district is still devising the protocols for distanced learning. And the top-of-mind worry is COVID.

The Community Foundation of Central Georgia through its Central Georgia Covid-19 Response & Recovery Fund provided, among 103 grants totaling $1.26 million, a $15,000 grant to Houston County Schools to fund internet access to 935 families. The district matched the foundation’s grant. The CFCG also granted $28,500 to Baldwin County Schools, northeast of Macon-Bibb, to provide 125 hotspots with data for six months for families of students in need of internet access. 

Food is one of the biggest concerns, with such a high level of poverty among the students. The district, when schools closed March 14, provided meals at various pick-up locations. The board increased the school nutrition budget by $4.1 million over last year. “Costs are not just up in school nutrition,” Ron Collier, the district’s chief financial officer, said, “but for masks, super cleaning, counseling, and preparing for what we do if a student or school personnel comes down with COVID-19. All of that is in the planning phases.”

 

Agencies fill the gap

We’ve given out more food in seven months than we did in all of 2019,” said Pastor Horace Holmes of World Changers Church-Macon, and a board member of the Middle Georgia Community Food Bank. The food bank has held food distribution events all over Middle Georgia. In Macon-Bibb County, it works in collaboration with the city’s three Rotary Clubs, the Community Church of God, Healing Experiences Ministries, Bibb Mount Zion, St. Paul AME World Changers and Kingdom Life Church. Pastor Jason McClendon of Community Church of God has held ten food giveaways at his church, and he’s calculated they have given away forty-seven tons of beef, chicken, hot dogs, kid’s packs, vegetables, canned goods and bologna, along with household items such as paper towels, hand sanitizer, dish washing and laundry detergent.

Sheriff’s deputies had to be called in to guide traffic for a food distribution event at McClendon’s church on July 29 as a line of cars wrapped around the block World Changers, along with Navicent Health and the food bank had another food distribution event on July 31, and the line of cars wrapped around a huge parking lot. Community Church of God has also tested 20,000 residents for COVID-19. “There’s no infrastructure in place for mass testing. Our community is just ravaged,” McClendon said. 

Bibb is one of 181 school systems in the state of Georgia. School districts, particularly those in Middle Georgia, have been all over the place as far as starting dates and whether they should return to face-to-face instruction. Most districts plan to start in early August, but Bibb County Schools pushed its start date back to September 8, after Labor Day. “By pushing the time back,” added Collier, “we can make more educated decisions.”  

Already a third of the district’s students, 7,500, have registered for online instruction. “We’re using this time.” Collier noted, “to work through all the issues we could face and preparing staff and students. The key is to move, respond, and be flexible.” Bibb County schools have 24,110 students in 37 facilities. The Houston County system, which has 28,150 students, delayed its opening until August 6, just two days later than originally planned. The Houston County system reported that 77 percent of parents plan to send their children to face-to-face classes; 15.4 percent will have digital instruction; and 38.7 percent plan to have their children ride a school bus. 

In the South, you know something is serious when it affects the Church of Gridiron Philosophy.  The Georgia High School Association that governs high school sports announced on July 20 that it was delaying the start of the football season by two weeks because of COVID. Workouts with pads weren’t allowed until August 1. That’s just as well. Middle Georgia is experiencing a heat wave with temperatures in the high 90s and topping 100 degrees some days. The normal summer pattern of heat followed by an afternoon thundershower, followed by high humidity, hasn’t changed much with one exception: the afternoon showers have been rare.

Bibb County schools originally considered three options. One was full face-to-face instruction; another was a hybrid model where one group of students would attend in-person classes on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other group on Thursdays and Fridays. Students would receive digital instruction on the days they were not in classes. The system would use Wednesdays to deep clean facilities. The third option was digital only. After announcing the three options, the school board went into executive session and decided to eliminate the hybrid option for being “too disruptive.” But there was another reason. At the same school board meeting, a Bibb County health official told the board that the community was already in the “High Risk” category that would mandate digital-only learning.

Parents and teachers are leery of resuming face-to-face instruction. Bibb County surveyed employees to identify any personnel at risk, but Superintendent Curtis Jones admitted that some personnel didn’t feel comfortable with the survey because, “they didn’t trust the system.”

The district also surveyed parents. Dr. Jones wrote in his blog, “Our survey of parents showed that many parents are interested in a virtual option––even if we are able to return to school in person. We are working on a plan or option that will allow parents to choose to do so if they feel like they are not ready to send their child back to the school setting just yet.”

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Macon-Bibb County has a high number of private schools, most formed after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, with tuition averaging $15,000 annually. Most are planning to open in August. 

Stratford Academy, established in 1960, will welcome students to campus on August 19 and face masks will be required for all students from the third to twelfth grade. Temperatures will be taken daily, and social distancing will be practiced. According to the school’s website, “Lunchroom service… will be utilizing a pre-order online system and food will be served in pre-packaged containers and will be consumed either in the lunchroom on a rotating schedule to limit mixing, inside the classroom, or in our outdoor spaces.”

Mount de Sales Academy, a Catholic private school established in 1876, is opening its campus on August 12. First Presbyterian Day School, founded in 1970, the same year the public schools integrated, will open for face-to-face instruction on August 13. There are several other private academies in the area, but the other major ones are Windsor, Central Fellowship Christian, Tattnail Square, plus two Montessori schools.  

There are also two state-sponsored charter schools. One is the Academy for Classical Education, K – 12, first chartered by the Bibb County Public School System in 2013, but in 2019, it became a state-chartered school. There is no tuition, but the school uses a weighted lottery system to select students and is in the north end of the county. ACE begins class on August 3. One of the differences between being chartered by the local school board and the State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia––other than funding and control––is that schools can accept out-of-county students.

The other charter is Cirrus Academy, chartered in 2016 and is located in an urban area of the county and has a predominately African American student body. The school specializes in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) curriculum. When the school opens August 10, it will be virtual. Of all the private and charter schools, only Mount de Sales provides limited transportation for its students living in Warner Robins.  

The racial breakdown of the public school student populations, according to the Georgia Department of Education, is more black than white with a few Hispanic and Asian except for the Academy for Classical Education which has 264 Black, 1,240 White, 206 Hispanic and Asian.

 

Is Middle Georgia an outlier?

Many school systems around the state have decided to open only with virtual instruction, including the largest systems in the state: Atlanta City Schools (54,946 students), Fulton County Schools (94,000 students), Gwinnett County Public Schools (180,000 students) and Cobb County Schools (112,000 students).

Richmond County Schools (34,691 students) plans to open with virtual and face-to-face instruction but they gave parents until July 27 to sign up for virtual instruction. The system also moved its start date back to September 8. Muscogee County Schools (32,944 students) will open digitally-only on August 17, and Savannah-Chatham County School District (38,100 students) will begin virtual-only classes on August 19.

Cobb’s Superintendent Chris Ragsdale said during the district’s July board meeting, “I know we need to get back to face-to-face instruction. That is why we tried to offer parents two options––in person and virtual––to start the school year. Unfortunately, public health guidance does not make that possible.”

 

What, me worry?

On May 3, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported a seven-day average of 667.6 COVID cases. A month later the seven-day average jumped to 782.7. By July 2, the seven-day average soared to 3,269, and the state began setting new records almost daily. By July 31, the average was 3,615.4, with a one-day high of 4,836 confirmed cases. The highest rate of confirmed COVID cases is in the 18-29 age bracket with 45,323 and 28 deaths. There have been 2,039 cases in children not yet a year old, and there have been 12,290 cases in school-age children. Fortunately, there has only been one death in that age group. On July 31, the state was averaging almost 45 deaths daily over a seven-day period. Health care workers throughout the state have also been hit hard with 11,301 contracting COVID with more than 50 deaths.  

On Friday, July 17, Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey said the state is experiencing widespread community transmission of COVID-19.

 

Reality check

Middle Georgia’s largest hospital, Navicent Health, a 637-bed Level I trauma center, is on diversion, during periods in July. In a written statement the hospital acknowledged it was “currently at capacity,” but added that the situation wasn’t due to COVID. Navicent had to send patients as far away as Rome, Georgia, 150 miles away. That was confirmed by State Senator Chuck Hufstetler, a Republican lawmaker who is also a full-time assistant anesthesiologist in Rome. In a video stream, Hufstetler said, “We were the closest ICU bed open. Macon is a long way from Rome, so there’s a lot of ICUs filled up right now.” On July 31, Houston Medical Center’s ICU/CCU, medical/surgery and ER units were, according to the Georgia Hospital Resource Report, “saturated.” Six hospitals in the state were either on total diversion or COVID-19 saturation.  

Exactly how many COVID patients are being treated by Navicent is unknown because the hospital decided not to release that information over the objections of local media outlets, including The Telegraph, the area’s daily newspaper. The Telegraph, owned by McClatchy, the second largest local media company in the nation, sits in unchartered waters. McClatchy filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in February. The company was up for grabs and ended up in the hands of Chatham Asset Management, a hedge fund based in New Jersey, ending 160 years of McClatchy family ownership. Even with diminished ranks, the local newspaper has managed to provide daily COVID-19 updates, and reported on the mask controversy between Governor Kemp and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

 

Added pressure

The political pressure to open the school year with face-to-face instruction is tremendous. On top of the pressure from President Donald Trump, his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, threatened to withhold funds from schools that didn’t open. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said during a briefing, “The president has said unmistakably that he wants schools to open. And when he says open, he means open in full, kids being able to attend each and every day at their school. The science should not stand in the way of this.”

The pressure is also coming from Kemp, who played down the risks of opening schools with face-to-face instruction during a press conference on July 17. “I personally think once kids start going back––it’s not going to be easy, there are going to be challenges, but every new school year has a challenge. We’re going to have cases that break out in schools, either with personnel or perhaps students, just like you do with a stomach bug or a flu or anything else. Our schools know how to handle those situations.”

The trouble is, COVID-19 is not a stomach bug or flu, and our schools are not prepared to handle an outbreak when one occurs. Kemp also blamed the media for scaring parents. “When newspapers and the media only write about one side of the story and they’re not writing about really the lack of risk––I mean everybody’s having risk. People that have been working in grocery stores through all this, people that have been in critical infrastructure jobs go to work every day with risk, our law enforcement––protecting peaceful demonstrators, going after those that were disruptive––they face risk every day from the coronavirus. We have to be very smart about how we do this.”

 

Local mask kerfuffle

On July 21, the Macon-Bibb County Commission voted to require masks and backed it up with penalties Mayor Robert Reichert had already issued an executive order “encouraging” mask use. On July 27, the commission received a letter from the mayor: “After receipt of numerous emails advocating for both sides of this legislation, and deliberate and protracted thought and reflection, it is with deep respect and commitment that I hereby VETO the Emergency Ordinance calling for masks to be mandated in public spaces, as passed by the Commission on July 21st.”

Interesting side note: During the July 21 meeting, commissioners also voted 5-4 to remove two Confederate monuments located prominently downtown. On July 28, Martin Bell, the leader of Military Order of the Stars and Bars, filed an eleven-page lawsuit in Bibb Superior Court to halt moving the monuments. The lawsuit stated the commissioners who voted to move the memorials carried out a “racially-motivated action designed for political purposes to placate the mob mentalities current in American society.” All of this is playing out before the August 11 runoff election that will decide the mayor’s race, two commission seats and a school board position.

 

The bottom line

Students, their parents, and school personnel are waiting for the other COVID shoe to drop. If the area stays in the red zone with hospital beds at capacity, it’s thought that opening campuses will only lead to disaster. While younger folks can probably survive a match with COVID, the same can’t be said for those who teach, clean, and administer their schools, not to mention their families.

This project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.

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Charles Richardson has lived in Macon, Georgia, since 1982. His journalism experience spans newspapers, radio and television. He is the recipient of Knight-Ridder fellowships at Duke University and the University of Maryland, College Park. He was the editorial page editor at The Macon Telegraph, from which he retired in 2018.