By Dakin Andone, CNN
Stefanie Watts admits she’s worried about sending her granddaughter and her son back to school on Monday.
“I’m scared,” Watts told CNN at a vaccination event in DeKalb County, Georgia. “I’m not gonna tell no lie. I am scared.”
But that’s why Watts is getting the teens vaccinated, hoping it will keep them healthy and safe from Covid-19 when they go back to their Atlanta-area schools.
“Sometimes you’re going to have to take risks, sometimes you’re not. And right now, going back to school is a risk,” Watts said. “But I also want them to have their education.”
Many Georgia families like Watts’ are confronting the first day of school this week, their students among the earliest to return to school. And as the Peach State resumes classes in the coming days and weeks, it could offer a glimpse at what back-to-school will look like for a country reeling from a summer surge of Covid-19 spurred by the highly transmissible Delta variant.
With 181 school districts, the first day of school varies throughout Georgia. But some of the state’s largest districts go back this week, particularly in the Atlanta metro area.
DeKalb County, which includes part of Atlanta, begins Monday, as do Cobb and Clayton counties to the northwest and south. Atlanta Public Schools students begin the year Thursday, and Gwinnett County Schools — the state’s largest district — will start Wednesday, but have grades alternating between in-person and remote learning Wednesday, Thursday and next Monday.
Like much of the country, Georgia is seeing Covid-19 infections climb. As of Friday, the seven-day moving average of new daily cases was more than 3,000 cases reported per day for the first time since early March, according to a CNN analysis of Johns Hopkins University data.
Georgia’s Department of Public Health said Friday the case rate had increased 204% over the prior 14-day period, while hospitalizations had jumped about 50% and deaths about 18% in the same period.
And Covid-19 can and does affect children, even if in fewer numbers than among adults, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Fox News on Friday.
“More hospitalizations have occurred in demographics that are over the age of 65, but we are seeing illness in some kids who get who get Covid, and it’s illness at rates that are even higher than the rates of influenza,” she said.
Schools are also a source of spread for Covid-19, she said.
Her agency released guidance last month that emphasized in-person learning as a priority, and many districts will have students back in schools. But how schools choose to handle Covid-19 will be left to local districts, Georgia State School Superintendent Richard Woods said last month.
In Cobb County, there will be social distancing in classrooms when possible, per the district’s website, but masks are optional for students and staff.
Fulton County Schools, where students start August 9, will require masks in schools where the surrounding community’s rate of infection exceeds 100 per 100,000 residents, which public health officials consider “high community spread.”
Atlanta Public Schools will require masks for all students and teachers, along with other prevention strategies like physical distancing when feasible, as will Dekalb County and Gwinnett County. The latter previously said masks would be optional, but the district shifted its stance last week, citing CDC guidance, the “rise in COVID-19 cases” in the county and young students’ ineligibility for a vaccine.
Some Gwinnett County parents opposed the decision and protested at the district’s office on Friday, CNN affiliate WSB-TV reported. One participant held a sign that read, “Masks hurt children more than Covid ever will,” video showed.
Watts — whose granddaughter goes to school in Newton County, about 26 miles east of Atlanta, and whose son goes to school in DeKalb — doesn’t see an issue with students wearing masks.
“Everybody should be used to it by now,” she said, adding that her teenagers will be wearing face coverings.
“With the vaccines, I think that would help,” she says. “I’m praying that it does.”
US goes back to school amid rising cases …
Districts in other Southern states are also starting school this week or facing an imminent return: Birmingham City Schools in Alabama also start Monday. Schools in Jefferson County, which includes the city of Birmingham, start August 10.
Florida’s Broward County Schools welcome students back August 18, while the neighboring Miami-Dade County Public Schools — the state’s largest district — will return August 23.
Students’ returns come as CDC data shows that the vast majority of counties across the South are seeing “high” levels of community transmission of Covid-19. That means they have 100 or more cases per 100,000 people or a test positivity rate of 10% or higher.
But it’s not just the South: Across the country, students are gearing up for yet another pandemic school year with their communities once again under assault by the coronavirus.
On Sunday, cases were rising in every state compared to the week prior, per an analysis of Johns Hopkins data. Cases were climbing by more than 10% in 48 states, 34 of had cases climbing by more than 50%. Nationally, the seven-day moving average of new cases was 78,600 cases reported per day on Saturday, up from about 12,700 on July 1.
… and a renewed mask debate
The good news is Covid-19 vaccines are effective at reducing the risk of severe disease and infection. But many students are too young to be vaccinated: Only those 12 and older are eligible for a Covid-19 vaccine. And even among those who are eligible, federal data suggests millions of teens across the US will return unvaccinated.
That makes masks an important tool in keeping people safe, and the CDC last week recommended that everyone wear a mask in schools, regardless of their vaccination status.
“Over the summer we’ve had numerous summer school outbreaks that have occurred when masks are not worn,” Walensky told Fox News on Friday. “Jurisdictions have had to close schools because there are so many clusters happening in the school system.
“So my primary goal is to get all our kids back in person, safely, for full-time learning, and to do so and to be able to keep the schools open to prevent those clusters from happening in school.”
Still, among the 50 largest school districts in the country, just 23 were requiring masks as of last Thursday, including the nation’s three biggest, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Others included Clark County, Nevada; Fairfax County, Virginia; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina; and the Hawaii Department of Education.
Masks were optional in 20 districts, most of them in Texas and Florida, including Houston Independent School District and Dallas Independent School District. Three others were undecided, and four districts had not responded to CNN.
Among those requiring masks was Broward County Public Schools, while Miami-Dade County Public Schools — the nation’s fourth largest — announced it will reconsider its mask-optional policy.
However, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, issued an executive order Friday directing the state’s health and education departments to provide rules to prevent such mandates — despite cases there skyrocketing — and let parents make the decision about masks for their children.
He also has said there will be no lockdowns, school closures or restrictions in his state.
In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine, another Republican, was taking a different approach. He told CNN’s Jake Tapper Sunday the state was encouraging masks since many students won’t be vaccinated but leaving Covid-19 mitigation protocols to local schools.
“We had great success last winter, last school year. We saw virtually no spread in the classroom when all the kids were wearing masks. So we recommend — strong recommendation to our schools — that they do that,” he said. “Now some will do that, some will not.”
The risks are apparent, even with masks and other precautions: Back in Atlanta, at least nine students and five staff members tested positive at Atlanta’s Drew Charter School just two days after the school year began, prompting the quarantine of more than 100 students.
The school had tested about 1,900 students and staff prior to reopening, Peter McKnight, the head of the school, told CNN Saturday. It was also mandating masks and socially distancing, among other measures. The school felt prepared, he said.
Vaccinations haven’t been mandatory for staff, but that’s under consideration too, McKnight said.
“This is certainly not what we expected for the start of the school year,” McKnight said. “And I know it’s not what our families expected either.”
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CNN’s Natasha Chen, Kevin Conlon, Camille Furst, Maggie Fox and Elizabeth Stuart contributed to this report.