All schools within the Floyd County School system will shift to remote learning after Friday, until Sept. 8, according to a letter from interim Superintendent Glenn White.
Since the school system has reopened there have been more than 10 positive COVID-19 tests confirmed among students and staff as well as over 350 quarantines.
“We are temporarily closing in-person learning to all Floyd County Schools effective at the end of classes (Friday). It is our hope to restart in-person classes at all of our schools on Tuesday, Sept. 8,” the statement read.
The shift to remote learning followed a decision Thursday morning — after guidance from the state — to walk back plans to designate teachers as “critical infrastructure workers” not subject to quarantine.
White had announced that teachers would be deemed essential personnel during a Wednesday evening meeting with principals.
The designation would have exempted teachers from quarantine requirements after being exposed to COVID-19 and kept them in the classroom. White said that once the state clarified its position, the school system modified its plans to comply.
“Please know that this change in scenarios for all schools is not due to a large increase in positive COVID-19 cases, but instead, because of new guidance from the governor’s office forcing FCS to change the status of essential workers,” White wrote in the statement.
“We recognize this decision still may create hardships for FCS families and is disappointing for students who want to be at school for in-person learning,” he continued. “This decision was not made lightly; it was made with the support of school board members, and was determined, as all of our quarantine decisions are made, in consideration with the DPH. At no time, has FCS knowingly allowed positive cases in our schools.”
White’s Wednesday night designation came after President Donald Trump’s administration released guidelines this week stating that teachers and school employees are essential and should not be immediately quarantined after a possible COVID-19 exposure.
Many schools that have reopened for face-to-face classes have seen multiple teachers required by public health agencies to quarantine for 14 days during an outbreak.
Those quarantines have stretched a district’s ability to keep providing in-person instruction. However, keeping teachers without symptoms in the classroom raises the risk that they will spread the respiratory illness to students and fellow employees.
White, who is also president of the Georgia High School Association, said he’s always advocated for the reopening of schools but emphasized that he wants to keep them open safely.
He also said the entire school system has not been affected uniformly. He said the Armuchee area has not been hit as hard as other areas, but they decided a systemwide closure would allow for continuity within the school system.
Rome City Schools posted 15 new quarantines on Wednesday and one new positive case of COVID-19. Those quarantine numbers do not include at least one East Central third grade class, said Superintendent Lou Byars.
A spokesperson for Kemp said his administration is evaluating whether it wants to incorporate the federal guidance into Georgia’s legal framework, which could spur more districts to act.
“We have had some superintendents reach out to ask where the administration is on this topic,” said Candice Broce, a spokesperson for the Republican Kemp. “We’re in the soliciting-input mode.”
Critics in Georgia say the designation would ignore new health guidance issued to schools that says exposed teachers must quarantine for 14 days even if they get a negative test.
Craig Harper, director of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, a non-union association, said it would be “reckless and starkly contradicts the newest Georgia Department of Public Health guidance intended to protect student and educator health and curb spread of the virus.”
The Associated Press reported that one of the first districts to designate teachers as critical infrastructure workers was eastern Tennessee’s Greene County, on July 13.
Hillary Buckner, secretary of the county-level affiliate of the National Education Association, told the AP that she has tried to raise the alarm, saying it’s unethical for teachers risk infecting students.
“It essentially means if we are exposed and we know we might potentially be positive, we still have to come to school and we might at that point be carriers and spreaders,” said Buckner, who teaches Spanish at Chuckey-Doak High School in Afton.
Only prekindergarten and kindergarten students are currently attending class face-to-face in the 7,500-student Greene County, and they’re only going two days a week for two-and-a-half hours a day. Teachers are instructing others online from their classrooms, Buckner said, but she said the local school board could mandate a broader in-person return soon.
Data kept by The Associated Press shows the coronavirus is spreading in Georgia faster per-capita than in any other state, while Tennessee has the seventh-fastest spread.
At least five other school districts in Tennessee have given the “essential” designation to their teachers, seeking to exempt them from quarantine orders. Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday blessed the move, with his administration citing the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency.
That agency on Tuesday issued its fourth version of who counts as a critical infrastructure worker, for the first time saying teachers should be on the list alongside doctors, police officers and meat packers.
Such workers can be permitted to keep working following COVID-19 exposure “provided they remain asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them and the community,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states.
“The decision is the district’s,” Lee said in a Tuesday news conference. “If they make that decision, we have given them guidance that they must follow if they choose that critical infrastructure designation.”
In Georgia, Forsyth County has also designated teachers as critical infrastructure workers.
Spokesperson Jennifer Caracciolo said that means they could be told to return to classrooms, but said the 50,000-student district has yet to confront the issue and will decide on a case-by-case basis.
It’s unclear if any districts outside Georgia and Tennessee will give the designation to teachers. Some other districts in Tennessee decided against it.
Teacher unions and national school administrator groups couldn’t cite examples in other states Wednesday, but criticized the designation by the Homeland Security agency.
NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia said in a statement that the designation “has no legal merit and is more of a rhetorical gambit to give President Trump and those governors who are disregarding the advice and guidance from public health experts an excuse to force educators into unsafe schools.”
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten expressed similar sentiments, saying “the Trump administration will always try to change the rules to threaten, bully and coerce.”
“If the president really saw us as essential, he’d act like it,” Weingarten said in a statement. “Teachers are and always have been essential workers — but not essential enough, it seems, for the Trump administration to commit the resources necessary to keep them safe in the classroom.”
People who are in self-quarantine because of potential close contact to COVID-19 should get tested for the coronavirus on the tenth day of their quarantine.
“The reason is that, on Day 10, you may still be having viral replication and on Day 10 that is more likely to be positive,” said Dr. Gary Voccio, director of the 10-county Northwest Georgia Public Health District.
Voccio told community leaders Thursday that Gov. Brian Kemp wants as many people as possible to be tested, in part because there is a good chance the positivity rate would decrease significantly.
“Our numbers are so high in Georgia. When you have a more than 10% positive rate, you don’t have enough denominators,” Voccio said. “We need to test more to find true negatives. More than 10% is really why we’re in the red zone.”
The Georgia Department of Public Health daily report shows the number of cases of COVID-19 in Floyd County went up by 41 Thursday, to 1,912 since the outbreak began in March. Floyd Medical Center reported 36 people hospitalized for treatment of the coronavirus. Redmond Regional Medical Center had 25.
Voccio also said that a high percentage of some of the so-called “quick test” results that are returned as negatives are likely to be false negatives. He suggested that if someone got a negative on a quick test, they should get one of the more traditional nasal swab tests to confirm the diagnosis.
Changes are in the works for testing opportunities across the 10-county district, Voccio told Rome and Seven Hills Rotary club members.
In Rome, West Rome Baptist Church is the primary public testing site but Voccio said he’s got to get some of the Public Health nurses who have been conducting the testing back into their normal day-to-day functions.
“We’re going to be opening different sites throughout our district and they’re going to be manned by emergency medical technicians, paramedics and LPNs employed by the district,” Voccio said.
Not promoting the wearing of masks earlier was a mistake, he said.
“We were told that this was not communicable between people and of course this was absolutely wrong,” Voccio said.
Redmond Regional Medical Center CEO John Quinlivan said a study in South Carolina found that counties that imposed a mask mandate had a 46% reduction in COVID cases relative to the counties that did not, over a four-week period of time.
Floyd County has been experiencing a slight trend downward over the past 14 days, but the number of cases varies from day to day.
The rate in Floyd County is about 1,600 cases per 100,000 people, which Voccio called “extremely high.” Floyd County has recorded 21 deaths since early March — 18 of them were white victims, two were African Americans and one was listed as unknown, which means the data was not entered into the system.
The Georgia DPH website lists just 20 local fatalities but has often reported deaths days after they actually occurred.
A significant backlog of contact tracing still exists but the district office has just added 17 students from Berry College.
“With schools opening we have a bigger backlog,” Voccio said. “Schools are following the guidelines we have set forth, the CDC and the state have set forth, to assist us with the contact tracing. It’s a lengthy process but the schools are really picking it up for us and we really thank them.”
While so many people all around the country and globe are waiting on a vaccine, Voccio said it may not solve all the problems.
He said there are studies that show treatment boosts the level of antibodies for a short period of time but after a few weeks the antibodies were almost undetectable. That raises serious concerns about the ultimate long-term success of a vaccine, he said.
“That ain’t good,” responded retired Rome physician Dr. Paul Ferguson.
The Sara Hightower Regional Library System has reopened to the public with limited hours and the board of trustees is planning to expand the system into Chattooga County.
The libraries in Rome, Cave Spring, Cedartown and Rockmart reopened on Aug. 11, with partial hours to protect both staff and patrons.
They also will continue curbside service for the foreseeable future. Director Delana Sissel said Thursday the library system has had a total of 2,684 curbside visits during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Each branch has a different schedule for curbside service and opening the buildings.
The Rome-Floyd headquarters on Riverside Parkway is open Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon for curbside pickup and open to the public from noon to 5 p.m. On Saturday, they will have curbside pickup available from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The Cave Spring branch on Cedartown Street offers curbside service only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from noon to 5 p.m. but is open to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the same times.
The Cedartown branch has curbside service Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The building will be open to the public Tuesday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The Rockmart branch will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday and on Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The library is then open by appointment only for the rest of the week.
Staff encourages patrons to wear masks and follow social distancing procedures while inside all buildings. Meeting rooms, study rooms and the garden continue to remain closed to the public. Patrons also must make an appointment if they plan to go to the special collections department.
Also on Thursday, the board of trustees voted to expand into Chattooga County and add the Summerville and Trion libraries into SHRLS.
According to Sissel, the library system will receive more funds from the Georgia Public Library Service, divided based on the population of patrons each branch serves. They also will be able to add two positions to their administration.
Although it isn’t official as of yet, both the SHRLS board and the Chattooga County board have approved the expansion.
The Wings Over North Georgia air show will go on this year with a twist. It’s scheduled for Oct. 24-25 in Rome.
The eighth annual air show will be a drive-in event where people can set up a tailgate to watch the show at Richard B. Russell Regional Airport. Each vehicle will be provided with a 10-foot by 20-foot parking space with an additional same-sized space for tailgating.
General airfield parking tickets are $130 per vehicle, but if someone is interested in a front row ticket for the event, it will be $300. There isn’t a limit to how many people per vehicle as long as there are enough seat belts for the passengers. The front row ticket holders will also receive an additional 100 square feet of space to use. Tickets can only be bought in advance.
“When we sell out of tickets, we’re done,” WONG 2020 organizer John Cowman said.
The International Council of Airshows had the original idea of doing drive-in air shows and once Cowman ran the idea by the county and state, they were ready to go.
Each car will be parked in order of arrival and attendees are welcome to bring their own tables, chairs, food and nonalcoholic drinks to the show. Concessions will also be available on site.
Face coverings will not be enforced at the air show, but Cowman does encourage people to wear them if they leave their spaces to purchase food or drinks or use one of the portable restrooms stationed around the airfield.
The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds will serve as the headlining and final performers for both days. The Thunderbirds are internationally known for their hard-charging demonstration of precision formation flying and pushing their F-16 “Fighting Falcons” to the limit.
Opening ceremonies will begin each day with the U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team. The elite group of skydivers will launch the start of aerial performances during the national anthem and later return for a full demonstration.
“It’s a very powerful lineup,” Cowman said. “It’ll be an outstanding show.”
To purchase tickets and learn more about the various acts, visit the Wings Over North Georgia website.