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Mary Goss, a teacher at Chattanooga Valley Middle School in Walker County, said her 7-year-old daughter Mercedes cried the night the school district announced it would reopen with a traditional five-day-a-week plan.

When Goss asked her daughter what was wrong, Mercedes told her that she was afraid of getting sick at school and coming home, putting her dad at risk of dying.

Mercedes' dad was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in January and is one of millions of people who are considered high risk of dying from the coronavirus.

"I'm concerned that my daughter, who is extremely sensitive, will think it's her fault if he were to die," Goss told the school board Thursday night in an impassioned speech. "I know she's not the only student who feels this way, and I know I'm not the only teacher who feels this way."

Goss was one of four teachers with Walker County (Georgia) Schools who told the school board their concerns about the district's "dangerous" reopening plan on Thursday night. They are advocating for a safer way to start the school year as COVID-19 cases in the community continue to rise.

Bam Aven, another teacher at Chattanooga Valley Middle School, said she started to feel COVID-19 symptoms on July 2 and later tested positive. More than a month later she is still feeling some symptoms and said the district's current "fluid" plan does not do enough to protect students and staff from spreading the virus. Aven also said many teachers are afraid of attending in-school instruction but also don't want to speak up in fear of retaliation.

School in Walker County is scheduled to start Aug. 13 for over 8,500 students. A majority of students (78%) will be attending school five days a week in a traditional setting. Face masks will not be required but will be strongly recommended.

"Mercedes is 7," Goss said. "She doesn't like the mask, but I don't have to argue with her, and I don't have to beg her. She does it because she doesn't want to get sick and doesn't want get anyone else sick."

Hailey Reynolds, a teacher at Rossville Middle School, said things like social distancing are not possible in the current plan. She wants the district to, at the very least, issue a mask mandate.

"I wish I did not have to say this, but teachers want to get back to their classrooms and their students," Reynolds said. "We know that remote learning has been limited in the past. We know that children must connect and learn and thrive when we are with them in school. However, if keeping our students, family, staff and community members safe is the goal, our current plan is unacceptable."

Goss and the other teachers cited numerous incidents in schools around the region of how potentially dangerous it could be to reopen school so early. They mentioned the positive cases in Chattooga County, the hundreds of kids who tested positive at a nearby YMCA camp and the four students who forced more than 60 in Cherokee County to isolate themselves.

Donna Speegle, a history teacher at LaFayette High School, said that in the spring teachers were considered heroes for adapting to a world that seemed to be changing every day.

"Now I feel like a zero, like my life is expendable," Speegle said. "I've given my life to Walker County Schools. I want to be back in the classroom with the students I love, but it isn't safe. I am not a crybaby. I am not lazy. What I am is angry."

(READ MORE: Georgia Rep. Steve Tarvin calls teachers 'self-centered cry babies' in Facebook comment)

Speegle said she was upset teachers weren't asked for their input on the reopening plan, something Goss also mentioned.

The teachers also cited Dr. Gary Voccio, director for the 10-county Georgia Department of Public Health Northwest District, who recently said in an interview that students, teachers, administrators and other school staff members should all be wearing masks if schools are to reopen for traditional learning.

Across the county line, all students in Catoosa County except elementary students will start with a hybrid plan with half the students attending school on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other half on Thursdays and Fridays.

Cases in Walker County have been on the upswing in the past two weeks. There have been 201 confirmed cases in the past 14 days, which is nearly 32% of the county's total cases (635). The county also hit a new high over a 24-hour period on Aug. 5 with 31 new cases. The seven-day moving average sits at 15.4 new cases per day as of Thursday.

The teachers also worried about how many staff members in the school were at high risk and advocated for a hybrid method or a full-virtual program to start the year at least until cases in the county start to trend down.

On July 16, Walker County Schools released its reopening plan, detailing precautions planned to prevent the spread of the coronavirus when students return to school. Precautions include asking parents to check students' temperatures before sending them to school, teachers wiping down common surfaces throughout the day and cleaning buildings at the end of each school day.

The plans, according to the district, were developed under the guidance of the Georgia Department of Public Health, the state Department of Education and the state-released "Georgia's Path to Recovery for K-12 Schools."

"I can say without hesitation, our motivation and main concern throughout this planning process has been the safety and security of every student and employee placed under our supervision and care each day," said a statement from Superintendent Damon Raines. "We want our parents and stakeholders to be confident this has been and will remain our highest priority."

The school board said it would not comment on the matter at Thursday night's meeting.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

 

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