ATLANTA (AP) — Two suburban Atlanta school districts that began in-person classes Monday with mask-optional policies face more questions about COVID-19 safety protocols after on-campus pictures showed students packed shoulder-to-shoulder.
In Cherokee County, dozens of seniors gathered at two of the district's six high schools to take traditional first-day-of-school senior photos, with students squeezing together in black outfits. No one in pictures at Sequoyah High School in Hickory Flat or Etowah High School in Woodstock wore a mask.
In Paulding County, student pictures taken Monday and Tuesday show crowded hallways at North Paulding High School in Dallas. Fewer than half of the students shown are wearing masks.
Critics widely derided the pictures on social media, although some residents of the counties voiced support.
Georgia's largest school district, Gwinnett County, said Tuesday it hopes to make a phased return to face-to-face instruction after an all-remote start to classes. All students seeking in-person classes could be welcome by Sept. 8, in what Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks wrote is a "best case" scenario.
Georgia hit a new weekly high for COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, having averaged 51 confirmed deaths from the respiratory illness over the last seven days. Few die from the illness, and only a relatively small fraction become ill enough to be hospitalized. Experts say many more people are actually infected than ever confirmed by tests.
Newly confirmed cases remain high, but have trended down over the last week, as has the share of tests coming back positive. Both could indicate the current outbreak in Georgia has peaked. The number of people with COVID-19 in Georgia hospitals hit all time highs last week, but have fallen slightly. Deaths are a trailing indicator after weeks of illness.
Cherokee County school district spokesperson Barbara Jacoby said the pictures weren't a sanctioned activity and district officials only became aware when the photos were posted on social media. She didn't say why faculty or staff members weren't present or didn't break up the groups. An Instagram account associated with Sequoyah High School shared the picture with a caption "Welcome Back!!!" but the picture was later removed.
"As with every first day of school, students and parents took 'first day' photos before school started outside of the schools — some of the photos were of students with masks on, and some were of students not wearing masks," Jacoby wrote in an email to the The Associated Press.
Jacoby wrote that the district continues to "strongly encourage and recommend that all students social distance and, when they cannot, that they wear masks inside the school and on buses."
Cherokee County Superintendent Brian Hightower had already provoked ire among some teachers with a Friday email that some interpreted as suggesting they resign if they had COVID-19 concerns.
"For those of you who are unhappy with various facets of our reopening plan, I ask you to reflect on the best direction for you in your role with CCSD," Hightower wrote.
On Saturday, Hightower wrote another email saying he heard from "several" employees and he "should have done a much better job of sharing my appreciation for both your efforts and concerns as it relates to our school reopening," underlining the "and" before concerns.
A Paulding County school spokesperson didn't immediately respond to questions Tuesday about social distancing at North Paulding High School. At least one football player tested positive for coronavirus in recent days there, among hundreds of Georgia athletes confirmed to have infections.
Cherokee and Paulding were the largest Georgia districts to resume full five-day-a-week instruction on Monday. Both are giving parents the option of five-day-a-week classes or online learning. In Paulding, 30% of students chose online learning, while 22% chose it in Cherokee. Neither requires students to wear masks.
Gwinnett County is among districts taking a different approach, announcing it would start instruction all-virtual on Aug. 12. Gwinnett and Cobb County, which also announced virtual instruction, have faced protests from parents demanding in-person classes.
The 180,000-student Gwinnett district announced Tuesday that it could seek to bring kindergartners, first graders, sixth graders, high school freshmen and certain special education students back to school as early as Aug. 26. More grades would follow in a second phase, for students not taking classes online, before all face-to-face students returned in a third phase.
"Student and staff safety will be the paramount factor in determining the pace at which we will move," Wilbanks wrote, adding that "adjustments to the dates and the grade levels listed may be necessary based on the still-fluid COVID-19 situation in Gwinnett County."
Fulton County is discussing a phased return, but says its decision will be based on COVID-19 case levels and has proposed no dates.