CANTON, Ga. – The first letter went out Aug. 4, one day after students in the Cherokee County School District returned to their classrooms for the first time since the eruption of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Dear Parents,” wrote Dr. Ashley Kennerly, the principal of Sixes Elementary School. “I am writing this letter in order to communicate that a student in 2nd grade has tested positive for COVID-19.”
By the time the last bell rang Friday, principals at 10 other schools had sent similar letters to families in Cherokee County, a bucolic and politically conservative stretch of suburbs north of Atlanta. This week, more letters went out.
Altogether, more than 1,100 students and staff members in the district have been ordered to quarantine. On Tuesday, one high school closed its doors until at least Aug. 31.
While many of the nation’s largest school systems have opted in recent weeks to start the academic year online, other districts have forged ahead with reopening. In Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Indiana and elsewhere, some schools, mainly in suburban and rural areas, have been open for almost two weeks.
Their experience reveals the perils of returning to classrooms in places where the coronavirus has hardly been tamed. Students and teachers have immediately tested positive, sending others into two-week quarantines and creating whiplash for schools that were eager to open, only to consider closing again.
All of this has only further divided communities over the safety of reopening. Depending on whom you ask, the string of positive tests and isolation orders in Cherokee County either proved the district’s folly for opening schools during the worst U.S. public health crisis in decades, or demonstrated a courageous effort to return to normal.
“This is exactly what we expected to happen,” said Allison Webb, 44, who quit her job as a Spanish and French teacher in the district because of her concerns about reopening schools, and who put her daughter, a senior, in the district’s remote-learning program. “It’s not safe” to return to the classrooms, Webb said.
But to Jenny Beth Martin, who wanted schools to reopen — even appealing directly to President Donald Trump — the district’s return has been a rousing success. “I think that the opening plan is working,” said Martin, a district parent and co-founder of the national Tea Party Patriots, a conservative political group. “They’re checking, they’re making sure when people have tested positive that they’re watching the exposure and spread.”
Controversy emerged on Day One, as schools opened in Cherokee and Paulding County on Aug. 3. At North Paulding High School, at least one student was suspended, then unsuspended, for sharing photos of crowded hallways on social media. Her school closed for at least three days after nine positive cases emerged.
Cherokee County had its own firestorm. A photo taken outside Etowah High School on the first day back showed scores of students crowded shoulder to shoulder, smiling and unmasked. A similar photo from Sequoyah High School was also posted to social media.
The county’s reopening plan was unanimously approved by the school board on July 9. Families could choose online or in-person, five-days-a-week instruction, and masks would be encouraged, but not required, for the district’s 42,500 students.
Opposition began to coalesce almost immediately. Webb, the foreign language teacher, organized a group on Facebook called Educators for Common Sense and Safety. The group started an online petition asking for, among other things, a mask mandate for students and a delayed start to allow time to rework schedules, classrooms and the curriculum “to be safe and engaging for our students.” It drew more than 1,100 signatures.
In mid-July, the group, which Webb said counts hundreds of members, picketed outside a board meeting. A former English teacher, Miranda Wicker, 38, became its spokesperson — a necessity, she said, because current teachers lacked union protection and feared retaliation if they spoke out. “They’re terrified,” she said. “They’re being asked, literally, to risk their lives.”
But proponents of reopening, including Martin, cheered the district on. “America is not meant to shut down,” she said.
Last month, Martin was an organizer of a Washington news conference featuring people who identified themselves as doctors and who made misleading statements, including unsupported claims that the drug hydroxychloroquine was an effective treatment. Trump tweeted a video of the event, which was later removed from social media platforms because it was spreading misinformation.
As the first week drew to a close, Wicker took to Facebook to update her followers on the number of illnesses and students quarantined: 260 after five days of classes.
“I hope with everything within my being that no one who gets sick right now dies,” she wrote, adding, “This did not have to happen. This was entirely avoidable.”