When schools think it is ok for a drunk to drive the school bus

Watching the schools prepare to reopen in rural Washington County Georgia is like watching someone pour gasoline on top of an already burning fire. As Covid-19 rates soar in a county that stubbornly refused to access tested and proven vaccines when a state-run vaccination site was set up in the county, the Board of Education is choosing the path of least resistance on healthy safety requirements.

The highly contagious Delta variant will find multiple classrooms ripe for explosive spread. The risk of exposure could be easily reduced if school leaders were willing to take one necessary step to protect those who cannot be vaccinated and those who refuse to be vaccinated-require masks in all indoor situations.

How bad is it in Sandersville and other communities in the county? Bad. Very bad.

Covid-19 risk of exposure, CDC tracking map

The CDC rates the risk of transmission as high. According to the CDC, the percentage of people in the county fully vaccinated is a dismal 7.7 percent despite the easy access to the vaccine provided by the state in the spring when eligibility was expanded. School age students between 12-18 years old are fully vaccinated at a rate of 9 percent. If teachers and staff are in the age group of 18-65, only 9.4 percent of that age cohort have chosen to be fully vaccinated before  returning to the classroom, cafeterias, hallways, and buses.

Yesterday the school system superintendent responded to an email I sent stating that they are following Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) recommendations. Choosing the Education link on the state’s site takes users directly to the CDC’s site, which recommends masking for all people in schools regardless of vaccination status or age.

Still,  Superintendent Rickey Edmond and the Board of Education are confident that letting 1405 students in the primary and elementary schools, 760 in the middle school, and 880 in the high school, sit in classrooms and move through hallways without a mask on is OK (because let’s be honest, it will not be possible to keep every child in a hallway distanced or properly masked).  There is a Virtual School option only offered to grades 5-12, with limited capacity and criteria for acceptance, that will have 20 students.

The reported cases of Covid-19 in the seven days preceding August 2 are up 161.54 percent. The percent of tests that are positive has climbed by  15.63 percent. Local hospital admissions are up a full 200 percent. Schools haven’t had the first student in a classroom and the caseload is soaring in a county with great doctors but limited hospital services.

Washington County GA school bus

Late yesterday, a news report posted on Georgia Public Radio’s site summed it for me. Amber Schmidtke, PhD., a microbiologist tracking and explaining Covid data for mere mortals like me, said, and I am adding emphasis to her statement”So when this starts to happen [children becoming sick and requiring hospitalization] in a bigger way in Georgia and kids who were previously healthy are on ventilators, I don’t want school superintendents to claim that there was no way this could have been predicted,” Schmidtke said. “We have plenty of warning that the situation in 2021 is more dangerous than a year ago for children. Willingly choosing to endanger children by not doing the bare minimum of disease control and prevention should be treated the same way as knowingly allowing someone drunk to drive a school bus and organizations that do so should be held to account.”

Teachers and staff are preparing now for open houses in Washington County schools, with classes starting Friday. In a community with a rising case load, doubled Covid hospitalizations, low vaccination rates, and school leaders willing to, as Dr. Schmidtke suggests, let a drunk drive the school bus, they are providing the ideal breeding ground for very sick children,  families, teachers, and staff.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Public schools are stonewalling their communities on Covid-19

Earlier this week the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s article Families press schools to show  virus data  proved me wrong in thinking that I am the only person bothered by the lack of information being provided to parents, teachers, students, and taxpayers from their local school boards. The lead feature coverage focused on a rural county not too far from Washington County, Georgia, where I am invested in the success of the public schools as a taxpayer and grandparent.

Last month I emailed the Washington County School Board members and Superintendent about where they are providing updates to the community on exposure to the Coronavirus and any confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the schools. To date, all the board office has said is that they have “fluid” benchmarks and are working with the state’s Department of Community Health.

Among their responses to my questions about informing the community about virus exposure, the Board Chair, Chris Hutchings, asked if I might be able to identify and help secure funding for internet connectivity in the rural areas of the county. Currently the system is sending out buses with internet connectivity to serve as hot spots in rural parts of the county lacking broadband service.

Hutchings wasn’t aware of the state’s assessment of internet access published in June of this year. Thirty-seven (37) percent of Washington County residents do not have broadband access to the internet. Many areas in the county lack decent cell phone service, making the use of hot spots for access also unreliable.

I told Hutchings that while I am not well-connected to groups focused on education, I would think about where funding might be available. Having been connected to foundations through nonprofit healthcare and environmental justice work, I do know some funders who might consider a well-crafted request.

The following day I sent these questions to the Board and the Superintendent, Dr. Rickey Edmond, so that I would know where to start and best help. Options B and C encompass online learning options for families.

In making an ask, I think you need to have at hand:

    • Number of students total, and per school
    • Number of students learning remotely- Option B and Option C
    • Number of students who chose option
    • Number of students in class because they don’t have internet access
    • Number of students without internet who are doing options B or C
    • Number of students with internet
    • Number of teachers without internet
    • Number of computers loaned to students
    • Number of computers loaned to teachers
    • Number of students who didn’t turn in final packets in the spring
    • Number of students who simply disappeared in the spring

I received this reply from Dr. Edmond:

Hi.

We have this data and monitor it yearly to assess functional levels, operations, and effectiveness. We are one-to-one with our devices for our students. We have a great IT Team and support staff to address parents’ needs when there is an issue with connectivity. I recommend you and your organization take on the task of helping the rural schools get state and federal funding for connectivity in rural America.

Thank you for sharing,

RE

So to recap, the Superintendent, whose Board chair asked for my help to  secure badly needed funding for internet access, gave me and my “organization” marching orders to secure what they said they need, but without any data. I belong to some environmental groups, and a homeowner’s association, but those aren’t the organizations that are going to pony up to help a rural school system provide web connectivity for the schools.

All of this data should be easily at hand if the system has such a solid grasp on all of its IT needs. I sent my questions to a journalist  beyond the confines of Washington County who has covered issues in the area, and access to school data in other Georgia school systems, to see if they had difficulty securing information. My hunch was right-this data should be easy to compile and readily available.

A few weeks ago I sent a Georgia Open Records Act (GORA) with the same questions I had raised when I was asked to help, with data points from August 7, 2020, the first day of in-class instruction, and September 8, 2020 for comparison. If they wouldn’t voluntarily provide the data Edmond has assured me they have at hand since the pandemic began, I could press the issue with a GORA request.

Edmond replied, “The cost will be an hourly rate of $46.33, minus the first quarter hour. It will take 16 hours to complete all the requested task and total cost will be $729.70. We are requesting the payment be made in advance before the retrieval process is activated because the total amount will exceed $500.”

Do the custodial staff, cafeteria workers, paraprofessionals, and teachers make anything close to $46.33 an hour, even with benefits? And why would it take 16 hours to put this information together if they are consistently monitoring these things?

I’m steadily losing confidence in what the Washington County School Board knows about how their students are learning, how teachers can support students and parents if/when the schools have to be closed this year, and how they are going to ensure that students receive the materials and instruction they need to stay or exceed their grade level.

My property tax bill is on my desk now, $737.34 of which goes directly to the school system’s maintenance and operations funds. The data I am requesting should guide the system’s budgeting and expectations of taxpayers’ dollar. The system should be making a case for their funding by sharing the data without reservation.