Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, who represents Georgia’s 7th Congressional district, and several parents and teachers of Forsyth County students raised issues with the local school system’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic during a recent roundtable discussion.
On Thursday, Aug. 26, Bourdeaux hosted the “Protect Our Children” Parent’s COVID-19 Roundtable in a zoom meeting, which also featured comments from parents, teachers and Dr. Carlos del Rio, who serves as executive associate dean Emory School of Medicine & Grady Health System.
“In the 7th District, Gwinnett and Forsyth, our schools are the crown jewel of our community, and I am deeply concerned about how we are treating the people in our community with such disrespect and lack of care for and their health and their safety,” Bourdeaux said.
Bourdeaux said she wanted to host the meeting after hearing from “so many” parents and teachers about what they have seen in schools and recommend members of the panel continue “to advocate for a better way forward.”
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Bourdeaux and del Rio comments
Before parents and teachers gave their thoughts, del Rio and Bourdeaux spoke to open the meeting, with Bourdeaux saying teachers often have fewer resources for dealing with COVID than other professions.
“In Georgia, teachers cannot sue if their lives or the lives of their families are endangered from [COVID-19] because the state would waive employer liability,” Bourdeaux said. “In many cases, teachers feel like they cannot even speak out because they have no protection from harassment, from being fired if they do. Our teachers, in many cases, and our support staff in schools receive far fewer protections than private-sector employees because in the private sector, in many cases, the employers protect them with mask requirements, ventilation and social distancing.”
Bourdeaux, who said her son attended schools in Gwinnett, added that she felt teachers and staff were getting fewer protections than other workers because “the teachers’ employers and school employers is really the community, and unfortunately we have become so deeply divided about the science and about public safety, and because of this we have allowed schools to reopen without basic health and safety procedures in place.”
Bourdeaux said that Forsyth County’s full vaccination rate was about 49% and “still not enough to confer herd immunity.” She said she wants wanted to see local schools take on tougher standards, including mask mandates for all students and visitors ages 2 and over, maintaining physical distance, screening, testing and other methods.
In his comments, del Rio said he was an advocate for in-person schooling, but “we do need to do it the right way.”
“I’m a big believer, I’ll start by saying, that in-person education is important,” he said, “and I want to see how we do it because we all saw how difficult the distance education was and how … it created enormous disparities in who had access and who didn’t, but also, I think it impacted the ability of our children to receive the kind of education that they need.”
Del Rio recommended that to protect those under 12 who could not get the vaccine, those around them who are old enough to do so should get vaccinated, having access to testing, mapping who has the disease and providing good ventilation.
He said those steps were an improvement over measures such as just maintaining social distancing or doing deep cleanings.
“I would say, while I know that social distancing is one of the top things the CDC recommends, I can also tell you there are some nice studies showing that the three feet [minimum for social distancing] is just as good as six feet because once you do masks and other things, socially distancing becomes not as important,” del Rio said.
Del Rio also warned that the delta variant of COVID-19 was much more serious than what was being dealt with a year ago and said he hoped to see dealing with the virus become less of a political issue.
“We are undergoing a difficult situation right now,” he said. “This delta variant is a different beast. This is a highly transmissible strain. This is not the COVID that we saw six months ago, this is not the COVID we had a year ago… I think the first thing we need to get people to understand is this is COVID on steroids. This is a real bad strain that transmits very rapidly, and therefore, if masks and vaccines and all those good things were good before, now we need to do it even more because the only way to prevent them from getting infected is to do that.”
Parent and teacher comments
Along with Bourdeaux and del Rio, members of a panel made up of several parents and teachers of students in Forsyth County schools also spoke.
“I just feel like we’re being failed by leadership at this point when it comes to making things safe,” said one member of the panel, who said she had three kids in local schools, “and we moved here because we knew Forsyth County had a very good reputation, and when they prioritize something, they put all of their might behind it and make it happen. For me, to see that our students’ health and our teachers’ health is not high on the priority list … It feels like it’s at the bottom these days.”
During the discussion, several parents said they had planned for their students to attend classes in-person this school year but had opted to homeschool since registration for virtual learning had already closed, with others saying they could not afford to stay home for homeschooling or virtual learning.
Other common issues from parents were what they felt to be a lack of information, students not being able to maintain social distancing in classes and issues with being notified about their children being exposed to a positive case.
“I’ve received seven letters from his classroom that he’s had direct exposure,” she said, noting that her child was one of the only ones in his class to wear a mask and was currently at home with COVID.
Bourdeaux read comments from one school employee, who raised concerns with crowded classrooms and assemblies, no quarantines being required for students exposed to a positive case, not being able to ask students or visitors to wear masks and issues with not being told when they have encountered a positive case.
Another teacher said she believed her school had been one of the most proactive in the system but still dealt with maskless students and positive cases. Despite masking, the teacher said she had still been exposed to COVID and had to dip into her personal time off to deal with it.
“I, myself, was exposed to it through a child who came to school with symptoms, tested positive [and was] unmasked,” she said. “I had to take personal sick time to get testing done because I did have symptoms. So, I was required to stay out, get tested and all that. That’s another issue for me is that we are being impacted by the lack of mandate, then my time that I have earned is being used when someone else has made a choice that puts me at lack of safety.”
A panelist, who is a substitute teacher and has a student in the school system, said that there is a big need for substitute teachers in the school system and her phone “rings constantly.”
She said when substitutes can’t be found, teachers on their planning periods or other school employees are having to fill in to cover classes.
What schools have done
When reached for comment, officials with Forsyth County Schools and the Forsyth County Board of Education said they had not been notified about the meeting before it happened and were not aware of it until hearing about it on Friday.
Since the start of the school year in August, the school system officials have tweaked their policies and plans for dealing with the delta variant as the situation has changed.
FCS officially started its Keep Forsyth Safe COVID-19 prevention campaign on Monday, Aug. 23, leading to school announcements, social media posts and more to help encourage students and families to wear face masks and practice COVID-19 guidelines both on and off campus.
As of Friday, Aug. 27, a total of 967 active cases, 857 students and 110 staff, were reported in information provided by the school system, down from a peak of 987 reported on Saturday, Aug. 21.
Another change recently made by the school system involves a new section on their daily reports, giving the total number of new cases each day.
School leaders and teachers continue to remind students to wash their hands frequently, keep their space clean, stay distanced from others when they can and cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing.
While many parents have recently called on the district to mandate face masks for students and staff, Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden and his team have stuck by the decision to give families a choice in whether or not they feel comfortable sending their child to campus with a face mask.
They have also kept to the decision, announced at the beginning of the school year, to give individuals exposed to COVID-19 at their school the choice to quarantine or return to campus.
FCS later published an exposure and quarantine guide for parents and guardians on its website to explain further details on what to do if a child tests positive or is exposed to COVID-19 in any way.
If a child tests positive, they are required to quarantine at home for at least 10 days. Kids are allowed to return to campus on the eleventh day if they have gone without any symptoms for the last 24 hours without the help of medications.
Students are also required to quarantine if anyone in their household tests positive for COVID-19.
Regardless of the situation or vaccination status, students are required to quarantine at home if they develop any one symptom of COVID-19.
Symptoms include fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or a new loss of taste or smell.
For more information, visit the district’s website at www.forsyth.k12.ga.us