Schools in Georgia need to limit group sizes, require masks and consider shutting down if outbreaks flare amid the COVID-19 pandemic as hundreds of thousands of kids head back to class this month, an infectious disease expert in Atlanta stressed Tuesday.
Parents and kids also need to mind what they do outside school settings since a young student who catches the virus can quickly spread it on buses, cafeterias and sports fields, said Dr. Marybeth Sexton, a member of the Serious Communicable Disease Unit at Emory University Hospital and a former Atlanta public school teacher.
Among more drastic measures, Sexton said schools should consider staggering lunch times, limit school buses to one student per seat, pull the plug on teacher lounges, hold classes outdoors if possible and keep kids in the same classroom rather than switching locations for different teachers.
“This is a time for people to really think about if this is incredibly important to us, to have kids in school – and it should be – what are we willing to do to make it happen?” Sexton said in a briefing Tuesday.
Many Georgia students began returning to in-person classes this week for the 2020-21 school year, following statewide school closures in March that prompted students to complete courses online.
As the fall semester kicks off, state officials have left it to local districts whether to hold classes in person or start off with virtual learning. Several districts have also decided to delay the start of classes for a few weeks, a move Sexton said schools would be wise to consider.
If all schools waited until after Labor Day to reconvene, and if people adhered to distancing, masking and cleanliness measures during that time, Sexton said Georgia could make big headway in curbing the spread of a virus that has a two-week incubation period before it can take root in classrooms.
“One of the best ways to get kids back to school is to do the things that are going to protect all of us, no matter what,” Sexton said.
But Sexton acknowledged keeping kids at home can be tough on parents juggling work with child care and could potentially lead to worse disparities between students who have consistent access to the internet and those who don’t.
Perhaps most important is for students to understand the reasons why wearing masks and keeping their distance from each other should be done, particularly for kindergarten-age students and teenagers with rebellious streaks, Sexton said.
“There probably does have to be a sense of you are not coming in my classroom if you do not have a mask on,” Sexton said. “Because that’s what’s safe for you, that’s what’s safe for your classmates and that’s what protects the teacher.”
Much of Sexton’s advice squared with guidelines the state Department of Education released over the summer to help local school districts decide how to hold classes in the fall via a mix of in-person classes and online instruction options.
State School Superintendent Richard Woods has stressed the importance of in-person classes on Georgia students’ quality of education but supports local districts making their own decisions on when to start classes and how to hold them safely.
“The first day of school will be the first day of school,” Woods said last month. “You can expect hiccups. You can expect challenges. But I guarantee your kids will be safe, your teachers will be safe and we will learn.”