U.S. Rep. Rick W. Allen, speaking to journalists after he completed a visit to several Statesboro High School classes Thursday morning, noted that all public school systems in Georgia’s 12th Congressional District have now started school with some in-person classes.
Reopening school has been “critical for the future of our country. …,” Allen said. “It’s not easy, it takes a lot of courage, but are you going to surrender to this thing or are you going to move forward? Now, I can tell you people are paying taxes for schools to be open, and in fact I introduced legislation to allow families to make a choice, either send their children for in-person learning or the distance learning.”
Allen, who has represented the 12th District since January 2015, is now the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee’s subcommittee on kindergarten through 12th-grade education.
In July, he introduced a resolution he titled the Educational Flexibility for Families Act. It would bar elementary and secondary schools that do not “provide an option for safe, in-person attendance” this school year from receiving any federal funding. Reps. Jodey Arrington and Randy Weber, who are both Republicans from Texas, signed as the first co-sponsors, but the resolution has not been voted out of committee. Although it refers to in-person school as “an option,” the brief text, less than two pages, does not mention virtual or distance learning.
“The American people want choice, and what we have behind us are courageous men and women who have said, ‘We want to open school,’” Allen continued, to WTOC-TV and the Statesboro Herald. He was facing the front doors of Statesboro High from inside, with the rest of the complex behind him.
Statesboro High and the rest of the Bulloch County Schools are now concluding their fourth week of classes, since reopening Aug 17 with face-to-face and in-person options chosen by students and their parents.
In fact, of Statesboro High’s 1,745 students, 994, or 57%, are completing coursework from home, by the virtual option, and only 751 are attending school face-to-face. Across the school district, 44.6% of Bulloch County Schools’ 10,822 students are enrolled in the virtual programs, while the other 55.4% attend in-person, except for some temporarily quarantined and being served by “distance learning” connections to in-person classrooms.
“Now granted, it has been extremely difficult, and I want to give a big shout-out to the teachers in Bulloch County,” Allen continued. “It is amazing how they have adapted to this. Like I said, it hasn’t been easy. They deserve a medal of honor. I mean, they’re putting themselves in harm’s way for these children, the future of this country. And these administrators, everyone, we’re in the battle, and we’re answering the call.”
Statesboro High School has been hard hit by COVID-19 in a personal sense, especially in its sports programs. Lee Hill, the school’s head basketball coach for more than four decades, died Aug. 1, before the start of the current school year, after being hospitalized with the coronavirus since June 11. After testing positive for COVID-19 last week, the Blue Devils’ head football coach, Jeff Kaiser, was released from the hospital Wednesday after a brief hospitalization.
Statistically, the impact looks smaller. SHS had 11 confirmed COVID-19 cases among students, faculty and staff members since Aug. 17, resulting in 84 people from the school being quarantined for 14 days each as a precaution public health precaution, not all at the same time. District-wide, the Bulloch County Schools had 60 reported cases from the first week of classes through Thursday and, cumulatively, 562 people – including students, teachers and staff members – had to quarantine as a precaution.
However, the first individuals who were quarantined and who did not show symptoms began returning to school Sept. 2, and the majority of those quarantined during the first two weeks have now returned, said school system Public Relations Director Hayley Greene.
During Thursday’s brief press conference, a TV journalist referred to the Statesboro area as being “in the COVID crosshairs” with the return of Georgia Southern University students as well as the reopening of the local schools having contributed to an upsurge in cases.
“Well frankly, percentage-wise, it’s like less than point-four percent,” Allen responded. “I mean, you take, we’ve been fighting childhood cancer for generations. You’ve got a better chance of getting childhood cancer than you do COVID. So, you know, we don’t want either one of those, but we know that young people, their immune systems, it’s the way God created us, when we’re young our immune systems work better.”
He noted that most COVID-19 deaths have occurred among older people.
So far, more than 6.34 million Americans, or 1.9% (and not 0.4%) of the U.S. population of 330 million, have been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 dashboard as updated Thursday. Of those diagnosed, 190,262 people, or 3%, had died.
With 2,540 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Bulloch County as of Thursday’s update from the Georgia Department of Public Health, almost 3.2% of the county’s approximately 79,720 residents have been diagnosed with the illness since it first appeared here in March.
Of those 2,540 diagnosed, 23 people, or 0.9%, have died thus far, less than one-third the national death rate. But many of the Bulloch County cases are recent cases among younger people – such as college students – and as Allen noted, the death rate among people diagnosed with the coronavirus has been declining nationally.
“We’ve got to fight our way through this thing,” he said. “We are very close to a vaccine. We have decreased the mortality rate by 40% in this country. That’s unheard of in medical science. I just got a briefing from our Doctors Caucus yesterday. The things that we have achieved medically have never been achieved before at any time in our history, period.”
The GOP Doctors Caucus consists of 16 medical professionals who are Republican members of Congress. Allen, a construction company founder, is not a member of the caucus, but he heard its report.
He credited President Donald Trump with “a lot of reduction in regulatory issues as far as research, development, that sort of thing, as far as therapies, you name it.”
Has it peaked?
Last week, the Statesboro micropolitan area, which is identical to Bulloch County, briefly reached second-highest in new COVID-19 cases per capita among U.S. city areas with more than 50,000 people, as charted by the New York Times on its website. As a county, Bulloch then ranked in the top 20 counties nationally for new cases in the previous 14 days.
Then Georgia Southern updated its weekly report Monday, showing fewer new cases on its campus last week than the week before, and the Statesboro “micro” area fell to seventh on the nytimes.com interactive chart.
Still, Georgia, the eighth-largest state by population, ranks fifth in total COVID-19 cases in the latest CDC reports. Georgia is 14th in coronavirus deaths per 100,000 people (or 16th in the CDC list, which includes New York City, separately from its state, and the District of Columbia).
Georgia ‘way ahead’
Allen was talking about the economy when he credited Gov. Brian Kemp with putting Georgia ahead of many other states.
“Georgia is way ahead of the nation,” Allen said. “Our governor did a courageous thing. He said, ‘We’ve got to open up our state,’ and he got a lot of criticism, but I’m going to tell you, Georgia financially is in so much better shape. I think most of our school systems, maybe than a few around Atlanta, are open for in-person learning, and I think that as of this week every school system in the 12th District is open for in-person learning.”
Some school systems in the district, such as the Evans County Schools and the Tattnall County Schools, just opened for classes Tuesday. Those school systems and others throughout the region also offered parents and students a virtual option for online courses.