As COVID Surges Again In Georgia, Some Students Pay The Price


Grant Blankenship

Siblings Quinyonna Tooks, right, and Charles Knott do their schoolwork in the Oglethorpe Library in Macon County. Charles is not a fan of remote learning. “I don’t like it,” he said. “In school is better for me. I can focus in there with the teachers.”

It’s Tuesday morning and now a third student has arrived at the two-room public library in Oglethorpe, a quiet spot to study outside their home following Macon County’s recent decision to move classes online amid the latest COVID-19 surge.

“Are you going to your regular seat?” the librarian asks the lanky teenager with a backpack on his shoulder.

The new arrival heads to study carrels in a back room. The small, main room is mostly shelves of books.

Siblings Quinyonna Tooks and Charles Knott have been here at a table near the children’s section for a while already.

You have to really strain to hear Quinyonna talking through an assignment on the periodic table of elements. For Charles, it’s a social studies lecture coming down the line through his earbuds.

The two have been at this table doing self-guided work in the weeks since Macon County schools went online. The school district made the move when COVID case rates among school-aged kids in the county were still quite low compared to other parts of the state.

Quinyonna is OK with the time in the library; Charles is not a fan.

“I don’t like it,” he said. “In school is better for me. I can focus in there with the teachers.”

That’s not to say Quinyonna is in love with the setup.

“It’s actually just my first year here,” Quinyonna said. Going virtual didn’t leave a lot of time to learn the ropes of Macon County High School.

“It was kind of hard because I didn’t really actually get to meet anyone. But I’m hoping that when we go back, I get to make new friends.”

When Charles and Quinyonna go back to school next week, Macon County Schools will have a new mask mandate. Most districts in the middle Georgia region have heretofore only encouraged mask use.

Those are just a couple of ways students are missing out in some Georgia schools because of the state’s failure to quell the rise of the fourth COVID-19 surge.

Absent any concrete guidance from state leaders, some schools have hewn to guidance from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention as coronavirus cases among children have reached new records, spurred by the new delta variant. Others have taken a wait-and-see approach to COVID mitigation.

Meanwhile, according to the Associated Press, over 20 mostly rural school districts have paused in-person instruction entirely in Georgia. Hospitals in rural areas around the state are overwhelmed by the current number of patients. That includes pediatric beds.

Jennifer Morgan Flory wants something to change in Jones County Schools after her experience with her son’s illness

“On the way home from the hospital, he threw up in the car,” Flory said.

That was last Saturday after leaving the pediatric emergency room in Macon. Flory’s son Iain, 9, had begun feeling ill the Thursday prior before racking up a long list of COVID-19 symptoms. That turned into two visits to emergency rooms.

“So they gave him an I.V., which in and of itself was kind of traumatic,” Flory said. Iain was dehydrated and had lost several pounds as a result.

“And he’s a little guy,” she said. “He doesn’t have much of a belly. He doesn’t have that much to lose.”

During the second ER trip, he tested positive for COVID-19. That was despite the family’s best efforts at staying healthy. Flory said she and her husband are fully vaccinated and the whole family still masks in public.

But they couldn’t control the environment in Jones County Schools, where Iain had been attending class in person since earlier this month.

Not until the day after Iain’s two trips to the hospital did Jones County Schools begin a pilot to mandate masks. The district says they will reevaluate the policy in three weeks.

Flory sees a lesson in that.

“If we’ve learned anything in this pandemic, we’ve learned that people are not going to do the things they should do in many cases,” she said. “They’re not going to wear masks if they’re not required to wear masks.”

Iain is recovering at home but has now made a third trip to the ER.

Bibb County Schools superintendent Dr. Curtis Jones hasn’t left masking to chance, instead mandating it for students, staff and faculty since the first day of the school year, as advised by the CDC. According to the AP, about half of Georgia’s students attend school under mask mandates.

Strict masking presents Jones with an opportunity, as communicated to him by Georgia’s Department of Public Health.

“If students are in close contact, if we have them inside school, they don’t have symptoms and they’re wearing masks, they can stay in school,” Jones said.

That strategy is also supported by a recent study looking at universal mask use in North Carolina schools. Armed with those guidelines, Jones has a different threshold for quarantining students than other school districts employing fewer mitigations.

“Instead of just looking at it as one-size-fits-all, we’re looking at it now by classroom, by grade level, by school,” he said.

Twice a day, morning and afternoon, he checks school and grade level contact tracing information relayed to him by the Georgia Department of Public Health. He weighs the tradeoff between what he can see about ongoing infection levels and what he knows students need after last year’s learning loss.

For instance, two classrooms — one seventh grade class and one second grade class — were shifted to online learning through Sept. 8 just this week. Other classes in the schools were left as is.

“So I think we’re trying to keep them here and keep them learning,” Jones said. “I’m trying to be strategic.”

Jones’ approach is not risk free and he knows not every caregiver is comfortable with it, but so far the vast majority of Bibb County students have remained in school, even as the district sent a both an entire high school and elementary school home for online learning this week. That lasts through September 8.

Back in the library in Oglethorpe, Quinyonna Tooks and Charles Knott only have a few more days of online learning, about which they are both happy. They hope to get vaccinated soon. And, Quinyonna has this advice.

“Just make sure that you’re doing your part in society and your community so that kids are allowed to go back to school and learn at their full potential,” Quinyonna said.

Whether those kids are students in your life or not.