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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines said the district has 120 positive student cases and 33 positive adult cases this week.

Schools across North Georgia are experiencing a post-holiday surge in positive COVID-19 cases for both students and staff.

Across the board, districts report higher rates of COVID-19 and staffing shortages caused by the number of teachers and substitute teachers testing positive for the virus.

In Murray County, the uptick in positive cases was enough to warrant transitioning to distance learning Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.

(READ MORE: Georgia Department of Public Health warns against New Year's outings, encourages testing)

According to data published weekly to the Murray County Schools website, there have been more than 50 new student cases of COVID-19 this week and more than 20 new cases of COVID-19 among staff members.

The number of positive cases in nearby Whitfield County Schools was similarly high. For the week that ended Dec. 17, which was the last week before the holiday break, the district reported five student cases and five staff cases of COVID-19. As of Jan. 7, that number rose to 41 for staff and 131 for students. Twenty-nine student cases of the virus were reported at Northwest High School alone.

In Walker County, the last full week of school ended Dec. 17. At that time, the district reported 35 active student cases of COVID-19 and two staff cases. In an email to the Times Free Press on Thursday, Superintendent Damon Raines said those numbers have jumped to 120 student cases and 33 adult cases this week.

"We have seen a spike in cases with both students and employees since the holiday break. We have plans in place at every building to address staff absences associated with COVID; currently, we are able to maintain operational capacity in each building," Raines said. "We are not considering virtual or hybrid at this time."

Raines said the decision to switch to a virtual or hybrid learning option would be considered if the percent of positive student cases is between 3-5% either at the district level or at a particular school.

"We have a variety of possible choices at that point which include close a classroom, close a grade level, close a particular school or schools, consider a virtual option [school or district], or close schools for a time period," Raines said. "We also look at operational capacity [supervision/instruction, school food service, transportation] at each building and at the district level. Once we cannot provide services, we must consider other alternate options."

(READ MORE: Georgia U.S. Rep. Greene fined nearly $90,000 for not wearing mask in Congress)

In Catoosa County, 40 student cases and 58 staff cases of COVID-19 were reported from Jan. 4-6.

Superintendent Denia Reese said these numbers were higher than those reported before Christmas break and confirmed the impact has caused some problems with staffing within the district – and though there was a substitute shortage across the region last year, Reese said she believes it is the virus, not a lack of substitutes, that is making finding someone to cover classes all the more difficult.

"Teachers are covering classes during their planning period and other employees [example: media specialists] are covering classes for teachers who are sick," Reese said in an email on Thursday. "The challenge with substitutes is due to sickness not a 'shortage' of substitutes."

She said the district anticipated an uptick in positive cases before the holiday break and planned for it in advance by developing individual plans for how each classroom could deal with more COVID-19 cases, including plans for what to do if staffing became an issue.

"We are monitoring cases closely, and we are prepared to transition a class or a grade level to remote learning for a short period of time if supervision in classrooms becomes a challenge," Reese said.

In Gordon County, only 10 student cases and five staff cases were reported for the week ending Jan. 7, making Gordon County Schools one of the districts with the lowest number of positive cases in the region.

During a phone call with the Times Free Press on Thursday, spokesperson Kendra Pannell said she believed open communication with parents about what is happening within the schools and about the district's revised attendance policy helped to keep the number of positive cases as low as possible.

"I think one of the big things that has helped us is that we send out messaging to parents consistently to remind them that students who are showing symptoms of COVID should stay home. We let them know that we back their decision as a parent to keep their child at home if they are running a slight temperature or something like that," Pannell said. "We've made sure that we communicate to them that we support them in that. We're not going to punish children by making those unexcused absences as long as they can document to us or let us know somehow that they are sick and are using that time to get well."

(READ MORE: Georgia health officials push for boosters and increased vaccinations as holidays approach)

Pannell said the district is experiencing what it considers to be "minimal to moderate" spread of COVID-19 and will therefore continue with in-person instruction as long as possible.

"We are committed to keeping children in classes at school as long as it remains safe to do so," she said. "But, we do have protocols in place for their safety. We are not using water fountains and ask all of our students to bring their own water bottle to school. We have filling stations for those that they can use and provide bottled water to students who forget theirs at home. Field trips are limited. We aren't allowing big gatherings, we eat in classrooms for the most part and we don't allow any outside visitors to the school."

The Georgia Department of Public Health warned a possible surge fueled by the omicron variant and holiday gatherings was likely at the end of 2021.

Spokesperson Logan Boss of the 10-county Northwest Georgia Health District said many people in the region have not yet been fully vaccinated, which is making it harder to keep community spread to a minimum.

"We have many people who aren't vaccinated at all yet," Boss said. "While omicron and other variants are a concern, we are still focused on reaching the goal of getting everyone those first vaccinations. That is the best way to fight COVID-19 and ultimately those other variants."

(READ MORE: COVID-19 vaccine rates for children vary around Southeast Tennessee)

All Georgia residents over the age of 5 are eligible for vaccination. Georgians older than 16 are eligible for boosters six months after completing their primary vaccine series of either Moderna or Pfizer, or two months after their Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Only the Pfizer vaccine is authorized for booster doses in 16- and 17-year-olds.

To find a COVID-19 vaccination location, visit dph.georgia.gov/covid-vaccine.

Contact Kelcey Caulder at kcaulder@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327.

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