ATLANTA — Georgia's governor and state superintendent say they want public schools to open for in-person instruction despite the continued spread of coronavirus infections, but they don't plan to force districts to hold face-to-face classes as many move toward remote instruction.
"Kids need to be in the classroom, and I think there's a safe way to do that," said Gov. Brian Kemp, who compared the coronavirus to a "stomach bug" at a news conference on Friday.
But when asked if he would take any action to require in-person instruction of Georgia's 1.8 million students, Kemp said "I haven't really thought about that. I think schools are trying to do the right thing and it's just my hope that we'll get kids back in the classroom."
Kemp and State Superintendent Richard Woods, both elected Republicans, sought to reassure teachers and parents who have expressed concerns that the coronavirus will surely spread among children if they're forced to gather indoors for hours at a time.
"The first day of school will be the first day school, you can expect hiccups, you can expect challenges," Woods said. "But I guarantee you, your kids will be safe, your teachers will be safe, and we will learn."
Kemp said he thinks the media has been overplaying the risks of getting COVID-19 in classrooms.
"We're going to have cases that break out in the schools either with personnel, or perhaps students, just like you do with a stomach bug or a flu or anything else," Kemp said.
Experts, officials and teachers all agree that in-person learning would be better, especially for younger students and those with special needs. Many teachers, though, are not reassured about the risks of respiratory illness.
Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said that she believes the majority of teachers would like to teach online only.
"We experience it every year when one child gets something, they share it with all their friends and their teachers," Morgan said. Teachers can close academic gaps from online learning, but "if a student becomes ill and passes away, we cannot bring that child back."
Five of Georgia's six largest school districts have decided in recent days to teach only remotely at the beginning of school. Of those, the Clayton County, Cobb County and Fulton County districts shifted away from earlier plans for at least some in-person instruction.
Districts in Macon, Savannah, Augusta and Valdosta are also among districts who have shifted to remote instruction or delayed the start of school into September in recent days because of widespread coronavirus infections in their communities.
The largest of Georgia's 180 districts, Gwinnett County, is holding onto plans for now to offer in-person instruction five days a week.
President Donald Trump has demanded that all schools nationwide offer in-person instruction, and Republican governors in South Carolina and Florida have ordered or strongly suggested that all public schools should reopen their classrooms.
But local control of schools is ingrained in Georgia, and Kemp would contradict that if he tried to impose a statewide policy, as he has with his order countermanding local efforts to require masks in Atlanta, Savannah, and some other major cities.
State officials have nevertheless moved to encourage face-to-face classes. New state guidance focuses more on how to keep schools operating despite virus cases, and less on whether schools should open in person.
"It took the assumption that we'll open schools but we'll do it very, very safely and ensure that schools have the tools they have to protect the students, staff, the teachers, as well as the communities," Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey said. "We are working and reassuring that a single case of COVID does not require a school shutdown."
Georgia Emergency Management Agency and Homeland Security Agency Director Homer Bryson said the state is delivering truckloads of protective equipment to schools, including 3.5 million cloth masks, 1 billion disposable masks, infrared thermometers to take temperatures, face shields, no-touch hand sanitizer stations and decontamination foggers.