United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited Forsyth Central High School Tuesday to take part in a roundtable discussion with educators about the district’s reopening plans.
Despite several high-profile COVID-19 outbreaks in early-opening Georgia school districts, DeVos painted a rosy picture of the state’s school year so far.
“I think it’s been good that schools are committed to reopening,” DeVos said. “I know there have been a couple of schools that have had more incidences of students with the virus. The CDC has been very helpful in providing a lot of information and recommendations for how to go about going back to school, and we highly suggest referencing them.”
Like many districts in the state, Forsyth students can choose between in-person or virtual learning, but Forsyth County’s older students can also pick and choose which classes they take online and in-person
“The other thing that we are providing that’s kind of unique to our system is that families can choose to send their kids for some of their classes and keep them home for other classes,” said Principal Mitch Young. “So you’ll have students like in our STEM Academy that are here for their lab classes for the hands-on, or for our automotive program, those sorts of things.”
DeVos called the district “a great roadmap” for how to restart a school system, adding that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. DeVos and her boss, President Donald Trump, have both pushed for a return to in-person instruction.
“And this is just so consistent with what President Trump has been talking about, the importance of getting back to school, and perhaps there’s been a little bit of a misunderstanding that 100% of the students have to be in person 100% of the time,” DeVos said. “No, there’s an expectation there is 100% learning in a way that’s going to work for each family and each student.”
But DeVos’ visit came as Georgia continues to have among the highest rates of new coronavirus cases in the country, with the latest White House Coronavirus Task Force report showing Georgia with the second highest rate of new infections.
That’s an improvement over Georgia’s position as the state with the highest rate nationally the week before. But the state’s recent progress in slowing the viral spread “remains fragile,” according to the report.
Forsyth County Schools reported 30 COVID-19 cases out of 55,600 face-to-face students and staff since school started Aug. 13. As of last week, the district reports 1.6% of face-to-face students and staff, or about 890 people, were in quarantine for direct exposure.
Recent spikes in positive tests at some schools caused some to quarantine large numbers of people as parents, teachers and students all strive for a preferred brick-and-mortar classroom experience.
Central Forsyth’s senior Jing Lin said she is taking her humanities classes online, but is coming into the building for her advanced STEM classes, some of which are not offered online.
“I have specific classes I had to take for STEM requirements, so that’s like AP physics, organic chemistry, and learning all of that on the online platform is totally different from learning in class,” she said. “Like for physics, we always have labs to do, and especially for AP physics, where the exams are lab-based, so it’s crucial for us to come in and get the lab hands-on aspects of it.”
Fellow senior Wesley McGee agreed.
“It’s just nice to be able to interact with them face-to-face,” McGee said. “It’s different on a Zoom call than it is in person. So it was a lot of weighing the risk over the reward of being able to be around friends and teachers that I’ve known for a few years now.”
Lin, McGee and most of their classmates kept their face masks on during their classes. Forsyth Schools do not require masks, but about 80% of Central High’s students wear them, Young said.
“We are blessed that we’ve got great kids, great families that know the importance of it,” he said. “We have a lot of folks that don’t believe in it and want to exercise their rights, we’re not shaming or guilting them. That’s their call. We’ve taken the angle that, even if it’s not for you, if you don’t believe you should wear it, it’s good for your community, it sends a good message for your other neighbors in the classroom and friends in the hallways.”
Giving students a choice and making sure they know not wearing masks could shut down schools is the right move, DeVos said.
“I think if you lay out expectations and you give students the agency in meeting those expectations, and ensuring their ability to continue to be together with their peers, then people will do the right thing,” she said. “I think that it sounds like it’s been working quite well here, the suggestion that this is our expectation, we’re not going to mandate it, but we’re going to expect that you’re going to respect your peers, and we’re going to respect one another. I think it works well that way.”
Georgia’s State Schools Superintendent Richard Woods echoed DeVos’ positive attitude.
“One of the things I’ve heard throughout the state is that we’ve found a silver lining,” Woods said. “It’s not all negative, doom and gloom, not necessarily what’s sometimes being portrayed, but there’s a lot of great things going on.”
But some medical experts are less upbeat.
“I think it is unfortunate that neither Secretary DeVos nor our state leadership are willing to acknowledge that we haven’t managed the pandemic well enough to create the conditions for safe reopening of schools and universities for in-person instruction,” said Georgia State University public health professor Dr. Harry J. Heiman.
“According to the White House Coronavirus Taskforce, we are the second worst state in the country for coronavirus transmission, with ‘high levels of community transmission’ in a majority of our counties. As a result, it is not a surprise that there have been multiple outbreaks at schools and universities.”
Leaving the decision whether to wear a mask up to students is not in the interest of public health, Heiman said.
“To suggest that not having a mask mandate is a responsible approach, especially for older students, reflects Secretary Devos’ lack of understanding about both CDC guidelines and the measures necessary to ensure the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff,” he said. “We have all seen the pictures from multiple high schools, now experiencing outbreaks, that ‘gave students agency.’ What children and adults of all ages need is clear communication and policies that are enforced to ensure their safety.”
The Georgia Department of Public Health reported 107 COVID-19 deaths Tuesday, bringing the state’s death toll since the disease’s February detection in Georgia to 5,262.
A report released by the public health department Monday points to reductions in statewide case numbers and the seven-day average of new cases as positive developments, as well as decreases in case numbers in metro Atlanta counties that were home to the highest infection rates. But the report also lists schools and their athletic teams as areas of concern for increasing outbreaks.
Some of Forsyth’s neighboring school systems have had a rockier start to the school year. Cherokee County directed more than 1,200 students and staff to quarantine as of Monday. Two high schools there are set to remain closed for in-person lessons until the end of the month after administrators sent a large number of students to quarantine.
Some students in Gwinnett County Schools, the state’s largest district, are set to begin heading back for in-person lessons starting Wednesday after beginning the year with online classes. Just as the time came to return to classes earlier this month, 260 school system employees either tested positive for COVID-19 or had to be quarantined for potential exposure over the summer.
In Effingham County near Savannah, 12 and five employees have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and another 171 are under quarantine, about 1.75% of the student population.