In an email to staff members, Walker County (Georgia) Schools Superintendent Damon Raines wrote Monday that two employees with the school district have tested positive for COVID-19 in the weeks leading up to the first day of school.
Raines told the Times Free Press Wednesday that the two staff members have been quarantined, as well as one other person who was known to be in close contact with one of the employees who tested positive.
Teachers, administrators and other members of the staff have been meeting regularly at the district's Advanced Education Center. That's where the district holds its board meetings and other various trainings throughout the year. Raines said the employees were at the AEC building, but only one other person was identified as having possibly been exposed.
"It is a very active building; it also serves as our enrollment center so we do have an employee who regularly cleans and sanitizes the building every 15 minutes," Raines said. "Most of the offices in the building are limited to one person but there are some common areas."
Masks are not required in the AEC building but are strongly recommended. Visitors are told to wear masks but it is not strictly enforced.
Thursday is the first day of school in Walker County. Last week, four teachers spoke at the school board meeting and criticized the district's "dangerous" reopening plan. The teachers are advocating for a safer way to start the school year as COVID-19 cases in the community continue to rise.
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."
Speegle said she was upset teachers weren't asked for their input on the reopening plan.
Raines said the district took guidance from local public health officials as well as leaders in the education community but did not specifically survey teachers when making the reopening plan.
School in Walker County is scheduled to start Thursday for more than 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.
Raines said that since the school board meeting the district has tweaked some details with the reopening plan, including instituting various temperature checks for students and staff.
"I realize there is a lot of anxiety associated with our opening this year and lots of questions surrounding the continued impact of COVID-19," Raines wrote in his email to the staff. "We have been tweaking our reopening plan for several weeks based on the feedback we have been receiving and feel we have a plan that addresses concerns but moves forward in the safest manner possible."
The district will not shut down entirely if positive tests start to pop up. Instead, the decision to close will be based on the number of confirmed positive cases at each school and how effective contact tracing is with each case, he said.
Raines also told the Times Free Press the district wouldn't issue a mask mandate because it would be hard to enforce.
"The masks are more of an enforcement issue for employees and students," he said. "Our plan is to show them the benefit of masks and have people be the example that should be set."
Contact Patrick Filbin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.