The Bulloch County Schools raised their COVID-19 precautions from the “No to Moderately High Spread” bracket to “High Spread” at the end of the class day Thursday, but that includes neither a mask mandate nor any effort to require vaccinations.
Instead, the shift from the green to the red zone of the school district’s 2021-2022 Return to School Plan mostly affects school meals, recess, field trips and building and bus sanitation practices.
Thursday evening at the Board of Education meeting, the one board member who is a public health dean presented facts to put the current dangers in perspective and urged people to wear masks – even if they hate them – and everyone who can to get vaccinated. One parent who spoke during the meeting said the board and superintendent have been “missing the mark” on assessing risks and protecting students.
Superintendent of Schools Charles Wilson had notified school principals, central-office directors and board members that the change to “High Spread” protocols was in effect earlier that afternoon.
“It had been our hope to not have to disrupt school operations as we had planned but circumstances have become such that we do need to temporarily adjust," Wilson said in a press release Friday.
New or enhanced precautions include “more strongly” encouraging masks and social distancing and increasing the frequency of sanitizing and disinfecting schools – again including a district-wide schedule of disinfectant fogging of buildings – and some measures meant to promote social distancing, the release stated.
With the return to masks being “strongly encouraged,” instead of just “encouraged,” the schools will provide them to students and staff “upon request.” But individuals should bring their own masks when they can, said Hayley Greene, the Bulloch County Schools public relations director.
Under the heightened precautions, field trips will again be limited or eliminated. At recess, students will be encouraged to stay in class when feasible.
Some schools will have children eat breakfast and lunch in their classrooms instead of the cafeteria, while at other schools students will eat in the cafeteria but sit only along one side of each table. This is very similar to the situation last school year, but schools began this school year Aug. 2 with a return to traditional cafeteria seating.
Just one week ago, the school system had updated its infectious disease protocols to make precautionary quarantines optional for students or school employees who come into contact with a positive COVID-19 case while at school but do not exhibit symptoms themselves. This was not reversed or otherwise altered by the “green” to “red” status change in regard to community spread.
Also still the case, the Bulloch County Schools district does not mandate COVID-19 vaccination for anyone. None of the COVID vaccines are approved for children under 12 years old anyway. One, the Pfizer vaccine, is available for youth ages 12-17 with parental permission.
Wilson’s determination of “high spread” status was made in consultation with the Southeast Health District of the Georgia Department of Public Health, Greene said. This was based on Bulloch County’s recent total case numbers, she said, rather than the numbers in schools.
The school system continues to emphasize personal responsibility, encouraging families to conduct a daily health check with a guide available at www.bulloch.k12.ga.us/stopthespread and from the schools.
"I want to reiterate that it is imperative that we continue to keep schools open and operating under the most normal conditions possible, providing our students with a sense of stability while attending to their overall psychological, emotional, mental, academic, and physical wellbeing," Wilson said in the press release.
Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn, in his Friday COVID-19 update, cited the county’s new case rate for the past 14 days as 550 cases per 100,000 people. The goal for more than a year has been fewer than 100 cases per 100,000, and Bulloch County had reached that goal before this summer’s resurgence.
The school system is currently reporting its case numbers on a weekly basis, each Sunday, so a count for last week is not yet available. But Aug. 1-7, the first week of school, 67 cases were reported among students and employees at 12 of the 15 schools and at two other district facilities.
During the Board of Education meeting Thursday, several the seven elected members present commented on the COVID-19 situation. Two noted they had been informed that children of theirs had been in close contact with someone with COVID-19 at school.
Public health dean
But the board member who spoke in the greatest detail was Stuart Tedders, Ph.D., dean of the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health at Georgia Southern University.
The currently available vaccines are highly effective against the delta variant, which is more contagious, but not necessarily more deadly, than other strains of COVID-19, he said.
“We also know that COVID is a very, very, very serious illness, but in terms of mortality, or death, it truly only impacts a very small portion of the population,” Tedders said.
In Georgia, 982,589 cases of COVID-19 had been reported to date, but he said he believes the number would be “quite a bit higher” if asymptomatic cases and those with mild symptoms could be known. Among the confirmed cases in Georgia, 18,987 people had died. Tedders noted that this shows a 1.9% mortality rate, but also a 98.1% survival rate.
Of all the people who have died of COVID-19 in the state, about 84% have been age 60 and older, while nearly 16% have been in the 18-59 age group. In Georgia, 12 deaths have occurred among individuals 17 years old and younger.
“This disease is serious for children, and we’re learning more and more about that. …,” Tedders said. “Twelve deaths is too many, but if you do the math, that translates into a case mortality rate of 0.06%.”
Tedders further noted that only about 1% to 2% of the total COVID-19 deaths are occurring among fully vaccinated people. Of approximately 4.2 million Georgia residents vaccinated from Jan. 1 through Aug. 10, a total of 13,332 have tested positive, or 0.3% of those vaccinated; 198 have been hospitalized, or 0.005%; and 105 have died, or 0.002%.
“So really what we’re seeing in this latest surge is really an epidemic of the unvaccinated,” Tedders said. “This is my point: If you’re eligible to get vaccinated, do it. Please do it to protect yourself and those around you.”
The vaccines, he said, are safe, effective, convenient and free.
Tedders was wearing a facemask. He didn’t always wear a mask to board meetings earlier in the pandemic, but he was one of four board members wearing them Thursday. Wilson wore one as well.
“I hate wearing masks,” Tedders said. “In fact, I’m not so sure that the word ‘hate’ accurately describes how I feel about wearing masks, but I really do wish people would choose to wear masks even if they’re vaccinated because I want us to do anything and everything we can to actually get back to some sense of normalcy.”
Masks have proven helpful in stopping the spread of COVID-19, particularly as a barrier to large droplet spread, he noted. But he went on to acknowledge that there are “different schools of thought” about having young children wear masks, especially in regard to social and psychological effects.
A little later in the meeting, during the public comments time, Michele Martin, mother of a William James Middle School seventh-grader, expressed concern about what she called “disregard of our children’s health.” She is one of many parents, she noted, who chose face-to-face schooling for their children this year after trying the virtual option last year.
“Based on the actions of our Board of Education and our superintendent, we are missing the mark in managing risk,” Martin said.
She said she was urging the school system leaders to “create a solid risk management plan … to do your due diligence, to do right by our kids, to keep our kids in our schools.”
Asked after the meeting if she was advocating for a mask requirement, Martin said she thinks masks would provide the best chance of meeting the goal of keeping children in school.