CANTON, Ga. — The first letter went out Aug. 4, one day after students in the Cherokee County School District returned to their classrooms for the first time since the eruption of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Dear Parents,” wrote Dr. Ashley Kennerly, the principal of Sixes Elementary School. “I am writing this letter in order to communicate that a student in 2nd grade has tested positive for COVID-19.”
By the time the last bell rang Friday afternoon, principals at 10 other schools had sent similar letters to families in Cherokee County, a bucolic and politically conservative stretch of suburbs north of Atlanta. This week, more letters went out.
Altogether, more than 900 students and staff members in the district have already been ordered to quarantine. On Tuesday, one high school closed its doors until at least Aug. 31.
While many of the nation’s largest school systems have opted in recent weeks to start the academic year online, other districts have forged ahead with reopening. In Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Indiana and elsewhere, some schools, mainly in suburban and rural areas, have been open for almost two weeks.
Their experience reveals the perils of returning to classrooms in places where the coronavirus has hardly been tamed. Students and teachers have immediately tested positive, sending others into two-week quarantines and creating whiplash for schools that were eager to open, only to consider closing again right away.
All of this has only further divided communities where parents and teachers have passionately disagreed over the safety of reopening.
Depending on whom you ask, the string of positive tests and isolation orders in Cherokee County either proved the district’s folly for opening schools during the worst American public health crisis in decades, or demonstrated a courageous effort to return to normal.
“This is exactly what we expected to happen,” said Allison Webb, 44, who quit her job as a Spanish and French teacher in the district because of her concerns about reopening schools, and who put her daughter, a senior, in the district’s remote-learning program. “It’s not safe” to return to the classrooms now, Webb said.
But to Jenny Beth Martin, who wanted schools to reopen — even appealing directly to President Donald Trump in a visit to the White House — the district’s return has been a rousing success.
“I think that the opening plan is working,” said Martin, a district parent and co-founder of the national Tea Party Patriots, a conservative political group. “They’re checking, they’re making sure when people have tested positive that they’re watching the exposure and spread.”
Controversy emerged on day one, as schools opened in Cherokee and nearby Paulding County on Aug. 3. At North Paulding High School, at least one student was suspended, then unsuspended, for sharing photos of crowded hallways on social media, sparking a national uproar. Her school closed for at least three days this week after nine positive cases emerged.
Cherokee County had its own firestorm. A photo taken outside Etowah High School on the first day back showed scores of students crowded shoulder to shoulder, smiling and unmasked. A similar photo from Sequoyah High School was also posted to social media. Beneath the photo, a commenter wrote, “Most of these kids are gonna be sick in the next few days … was it really worth it to appease the anti-mask parents? At what cost?”
The county’s reopening plan was unanimously approved by the school board on July 9. Families could choose online or in-person, five-days-a-week instruction, and masks would be encouraged, but not required, for the district’s 42,500 students.
Opposition began to coalesce almost immediately. Webb, the foreign language teacher, organized a group on Facebook called Educators for Common Sense and Safety. The group started an online petition asking for, among other things, a mask mandate for students and a delayed start to allow time to rework schedules, classrooms and the curriculum “to be safe and engaging for our students.” It attracted more than 1,100 signatures.
In mid-July, the group, which Webb said counts hundreds of members, picketed outside a board meeting. A former English teacher, Miranda Wicker, 38, became its spokesperson — a necessity, she said, because current teachers lacked union protection and feared retaliation if they spoke out.
“They’re terrified,” Wicker said. “They’re being asked, literally, to risk their lives.”
But proponents of reopening, including Martin, cheered the district on. Two days before the school board vote in July, she had appeared in a round-table discussion with Trump at the White House. Parents needed to go to their jobs, she told him. Students needed to be with their teachers.
“America is not meant to shut down,” she said.
Late last month, Martin was an organizer of a Washington news conference featuring people who identified themselves as doctors and who made misleading statements about the coronavirus, including unsupported claims that the drug hydroxychloroquine was an effective treatment. Trump tweeted a video of the event, which was later removed from major social media platforms on the ground that it was spreading misinformation.
In early July, when the school board approved reopening, case tallies in Cherokee County, with about 260,000 people, had only begun to rise after remaining flat and relatively low — an average of about 10 new confirmed cases a day — for most of June. Since then, though, the numbers have climbed steadily, mirroring the state as a whole, with the county averaging more than 90 new confirmed cases daily over the past week. Sixty-four people in the county have died of COVID-19, including eight in the past week.
As the first day of school approached, Webb asked if she could erect a Plexiglas barrier in her classroom. The district’s risk management director, Melissa Whatley, told Webb in an email that she could not “make modifications to a classroom beyond the scope of the approved CCSD Reopening of Schools Plan.” Webb then resigned from teaching and took a job at a law firm.
Wicker pulled her two children out and decided to home-school them. But the vast majority of families in the county — 77% — signed up for in-person learning.
On the first day of classes, a second grader came to school at Sixes Elementary, then stayed home the next day after testing positive for the coronavirus. Officials sent the other 20 students in the child’s class home for two weeks, along with their teacher. The class is now meeting remotely.
As the week wore on, the letters from principals kept coming. An eighth grader tested positive at Dean Rusk Middle School. A first grader at William G. Hasty Sr. Elementary Fine Arts Academy. Two students at Cherokee High School. And more.
Among the children sent home to quarantine was Georgia Hancock, 5, from R.M. Moore Elementary STEM Academy.
Georgia’s 68-year-old grandfather, Phillip White, posted the news on Facebook. In a phone interview, White said he suffered from heart and lung ailments, and had strictly isolated himself from March until June, when he and his wife began caring for Georgia and two other young grandchildren at their home.
White said his son-in-law chose to send Georgia to school. When the school sent her home to quarantine, White found himself worrying that Georgia might have infected him. “Lord, we pray for you to place your beautiful hedges around us and keep us safe,” he wrote on Facebook.
On Thursday, grandfather and granddaughter both tested negative. But White said he remained angry with the district, which he believes should have started the school year online.
“It was a terrible idea” to reopen, he said. “The teachers should not have had to go out and be at risk.”
As the first week drew to a close, Wicker, with the educators’ group, took to Facebook to update her followers on the number of illnesses and students quarantined: 260 after five days of classes.
“I hope with everything within my being that no one who gets sick right now dies,” she wrote, adding, “This did not have to happen. This was entirely avoidable.”
The schools superintendent, Brian V. Hightower, who did not respond to requests for comment for this article, also posted an update. He said the district was being transparent about the situation, and defended the group photos of unmasked high school students on the first day of school, saying that the district had learned, “upon investigation,” that many of those students wore masks routinely.
“Today is the fifth day of school,” Hightower wrote, “and, this year, that is an amazing milestone.”
By Tuesday, the number of quarantined students and staff members in the district had more than tripled, to 925, with 59 positive cases. Etowah High School, where nearly 300 people had been ordered to isolate after at least 14 positive cases, switched to online classes for the rest of the month. And Hightower pleaded for more routine mask use.
“We know all parents do not believe the scientific research that indicates masks are beneficial,” he said, “but I believe it, and see masks as an important measure to help us keep schools open.”
His sentiment wasn’t shared by some in a group of about 40 parents who showed up at the district’s offices before the school day started Tuesday, carrying balloons and signs declaring their support for the reopening policy. They cheered as officials pulled into the parking lot.
“Don’t worry about the basement Bobbys or negative Nancys,” read the sign held by Morgan Morrison, 28, the mother of a second grader who “lost her mask on the second day.”
Morrison said she and her husband do not wear masks either. “I feel like before we’re even born, God has a plan for when he’s going to take us to heaven,” she said. “There’s nothing we can do to stop it.”
Erica Reece, 33, has five children between the ages of 7 and 11 back in school. She and her husband both work full time, she said, so trying to oversee at-home learning in the spring was a nearly impossible task.
Just one of her children regularly wears a mask in class, she said, “out of respect” for a teacher with a health condition.
Leaving such decisions in the hands of families was what she appreciated about the district’s policy.
“Free will,” she said. “Choices.”