The Georgia Department of Public Health on Tuesday, July 21, confirmed the 30th coronavirus-related death among Barrow County residents as the cumulative case total in the county neared 800 and the number of cases continued to spike across the state.
As of 3 p.m. Tuesday, according to the department’s daily report, there had been 798 confirmed cases in Barrow since the start of the outbreak in March and 138 in the past week, including 27 since Monday.
Statewide, another 25,000 cases were confirmed in the past week, bringing the cumulative total to 148,988, and the death toll increased by 200 from 3,054 to 3,254 with 78 more deaths from COVID-19 confirmed Tuesday.
Three more people with a Barrow County address were also added to the death toll over the past week. And while a majority of the Barrow residents who died were 64 years and older, two of the newly-reported deaths were a 46-year-old male with no reported underlying medical conditions and a 26-year-old female who had an underlying condition, according to the latest data.
Around the area, Northeast Georgia Health System continued to report its highest hospitalization numbers since early May. As of Tuesday morning, the system was treating 141 patients confirmed to have COVID-19 (nearly double the number from a week ago) across its four hospitals and other facilities, including two at Northeast Georgia Medical Center Barrow in Winder and 23 at NGMC Braselton. Another 115 patients system-wide were awaiting COVID-19 test results Tuesday morning. The New Horizons Limestone long-term care facility in Gainesville, which is owned by NGHS and included in the system’s daily reports, saw its number of patients positive for COVID-19 double Tuesday from 16 to 32.
Ventilator usage across NGHS (which also includes non-COVID patients) dipped from 44 percent Monday to 37 percent Tuesday, but the system reported another nine deaths over the past week, bringing the total to 140 across its facilities, while 116 people were discharged from during that same timeframe.
The state’s latest numbers come as Gov. Brian Kemp is locked in a new legal battle with Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms over a mask-wearing mandate in the city. City officials have also pushed for more stringent restrictions on businesses that Kemp has gradually rolled back since late April.
While Kemp has been publicly recommending that Georgians wear masks in public and socially distance to try to stem the spread of the virus, he has resisted calls from local government officials and public health experts across the state for a statewide mask mandate — even as a document, prepared last week for and referenced previously by members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, listed Georgia as one of 18 states where a mandate would currently be recommended.
Kemp has called a mandate “a bridge too far” and issued an executive order last week that suspends any orders from localities that require mask-wearing in public places or in public facilities owned and operated by those localities.
Kemp has also filed a lawsuit against Bottoms and the City of Atlanta, saying the mandate is “unenforceable” and that the city is creating public confusion with its push for more economic restrictions. More than a dozen other localities across the state have implemented public mask-wearing requirements and, unlike Atlanta, some have attached fines to their mandates. Most of those local orders remained in effect this week. Only Atlanta has been included in the governor’s lawsuit to this point.
The Georgia Municipal Association filed a legal brief this week in support of Atlanta, saying Kemp has “attempted to usurp local control and Home Rule authority by using emergency powers” which do not exist in the state’s constitution or statutory law.”
In Barrow County, there have been no public mandates enacted outside of public buildings. But as of Tuesday, county officials had not announced any changes to a policy requiring everyone — employees and the general public to wear face coverings in county facilities.
The City of Winder has not adopted any formal policy but is formulating one at the direction of the city council that would require employees to wear masks. The council was set to discuss a proposed mandate similar to the county’s last week but did not discuss one for the general public given Kemp’s latest order.
Councilwoman Holly Sheats said she wouldn’t favor a mandate without stronger enforceability measures, and she worried about the possibility of unruly customers at city facilities not following a mandate.
“I want our employees to be protected, but I don’t want them in a situation where they’re dealing with an irate person who, for whatever reason, refuses to comply,” Sheats said.
Mayor David Maynard said he respects Kemp’s order but supported a policy that requires employees and strongly encourages visitors to and customers in city facilities to wear a mask.
“I just take the position of we’re trying to look out for our employees so we can stay open and keep serving people,” Maynard said.
“I would encourage (the mask-wearing),” councilman Jimmy Terrell added. “…We’re a long way from getting out of this.”
The Barrow County School System announced Monday that the traditional graduation ceremonies that were tentatively scheduled for next week at Apalachee and Winder-Barrow high schools won’t be held.
The decision comes amid a recent surge in coronavirus infections in the county and throughout out Georgia. The pandemic had already caused the postponement of the ceremonies in May, and virtual ceremonies were held in their place on the same days, where pre-recorded speeches were broadcast online and teachers delivered diplomas to students at their residences.
Still, the district had hoped to hold traditional ceremonies July 29 and 30 and officials said in May they would be held if conditions allowed for it. But with the recent spike in cases, superintendent Chris McMichael said Tuesday district officials were not comfortable moving forward with the ceremonies.
“During the course of this pandemic, our schools and district have faced many impossible situations that require difficult decisions to be made, and we are still facing many more,” officials said in a statement. “We are thankful that we were able to recognize our graduates in May with our virtual graduation celebrations that included student speeches and the personal delivery of diplomas to each graduate. We also appreciate the efforts of our teachers and staff to make that experience as unique and memorable as possible.
“We will never forget the Class of 2020.”
The statement was of little solace to numerous parents of 2020 graduates and the decision prompted backlash across social media. A group formed in opposition, calling on the district to reconsider its decision and even suggesting that local businesses support alternative ceremonies of some kind.
Even with limited access, the ceremonies would have packed at least 2,000 people into W. Clair Harris and R. Harold Harrison stadiums between the roughly 400 graduates at each high school, faculty members, district staff and immediate family members of the graduates. McMichael said a majority, or at least a high number, of attendees would either be in the highest infection rate category or among the ages that experience some of the more serious effects of the virus.
"This was an exceedingly hard decision for us to have made," McMichael said. "It was not a lightly-made decision in the least. For me personally, it was one of the hardest in my career. I fully understand the intense disappointment and frustration (the parents and graduates) are feeling and expressing.
"Back in May when we rescheduled in-person graduation ceremonies for July, we did so fully expecting the situation would have improved by now. To be blunt, it hasn’t. While Barrow is not seeing the numbers that Gwinnett or Fulton is seeing, we still are seeing a rise."
Much of the consternation among the parents and graduates who spoke out against the district's decision was that district officials referenced an executive order by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp still in effect that prohibits public gatherings of 50 or more people, if social-distancing cannot be guaranteed, but did not mention that schools are exempt from the gathering limit. However, the order does state that schools must still comply with social-distancing requirements and follow several other criteria.
As it stands now, the district plans to start the school year two weeks later than originally planned on Aug. 17, and nearly 25 percent of students will be attending classes virtually. The schools will also have mask-wearing mandates for staff and on school buses and other crowded areas while "strongly recommending" mask-wearing among students in classrooms. Other limitations and restrictions have been put in place for visitation to the schools from the public.
McMichael said the district will not be allowing any "full school gatherings" for the time-being and that, while the district will await guidance from the Georgia High School Association, spectators may not be allowed at sporting events this fall either, at least at the start.
Numerous parents on social media also called for refunding of senior fees due to the cancellation of the graduation ceremonies, but McMichael said those fees are paid to cover caps, gowns, tassels, stoles, senior T-shirts, leather covers, the printing and sealing of diplomas, and their programs. He said, to his knowledge, the graduates had received all those items and refunding of any other payments would need to be worked out between parents/students and their school.
While the decision lies with the district and not the school board, McMichael said the district "might be open" to further recognizing the class of 2020 in the future once the pandemic has subsided.
"However, I am very hesitant to give any further dates or plans because, as we have experienced, this situation we are dealing with does not follow any pattern or schedule that we wish it would," he said. "None of us work in education because we don’t want to support our students or our community. We are simply attempting to get through this the best we can without any precedent or guidebook."
The Barrow County school board voted 7-2 Monday to delay the start of school by two weeks to Aug. 17 amid the coronavirus pandemic and a recent spike in infections in the county and across Georgia.
The school board had voted earlier this month to start school on Aug. 4 as originally planned with options for in-person and virtual learning. But at the recommendation of superintendent Chris McMichael, the board changed course Monday night. Students will still have in-person and virtual-learning options, and McMichael said 3,790 students (more than 20 percent of the student population) had signed up for virtual learning for the fall semester.
“That was quite a bit more than we were expecting,” McMichael said. He added that he made the recommendation to push back the start date two weeks to allow more time for all of the personal-protective and technology equipment the system has ordered to arrive; to allow for teachers to have more time for pre-planning; and to give custodians more training on thorough cleaning of facilities to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Teachers will still report Monday, July 27, for pre-planning, but the extra two weeks will also give the district and its teachers more time to develop an emergency plan for 100-percent virtual learning in case any future orders by Gov. Brian Kemp dictate that public schools be closed for any length of time.
“What we all dread down the road is if we have to go 100-percent virtual, but we need our teachers to be prepared,” McMichael said. “We want a very structured program. We did the best we could, and for the most part I think our teachers did a phenomenal job with it (for the final two months of the 2019-20 school year), but we didn’t get a chance to structure it.
“We want everyone to have as close to a normal education experience as we can. We want to give them the best chance at that.”
Barrow County did not go as far with its delay as school boards in surrounding counties have. Gwinnett County and Fulton County schools have opted to implement all-virtual learning for the fall semester, while Clarke County schools postponed their start date last week to Sept. 8. Elsewhere, Jefferson schools are still on schedule to return July 31, while Jackson County has been delayed until Aug. 12. Oconee County’s school board voted Monday to stick with its original start date and, like Barrow, is offering options for in-person and virtual learning.
Under the new Barrow school calendar that was approved Monday, the district will have the same number of instructional days — unlike Clarke County, for example, which is cutting its number of instructional days back by around 20. McMichael said he was not comfortable going past Aug. 17 for a start date.
“Our children need to be in school if at all possible,” he said. “This is a different world for us, but as educators we’re going to soldier on and do the best we can.”
Barrow is making up the gap by eliminating a fall break in October and a couple of other previously-scheduled off days. The first semester will still end Dec. 18 and the second semester is scheduled to begin Jan. 11, while spring break is still set for April 5-9. The last of school remains May 26, with high school graduations set for May 26 at Apalachee and May 27 at Winder-Barrow.
Like the rest of the state, Barrow County has had to grapple with constantly-changing data and criticism from parents and community members from all angles — several warning against the consequences of returning to school while the virus is still spreading and others about the various impacts on students and their families of not having in-person school.
“As a board, we’re here to serve our community. We’ve received a lot of emails and there’s been a lot of passion in them,” board member Bill Ritter said. “(The district has) done a great job formulating a plan that I think is going to be approved of by most of the community. We’re on the right track and I’m pleased with this decision.”
The plan was met with some pushback, though, on the board — from those voting for and against it.
Garey Huff, who was joined in opposition by Stephanie Bramlett, said the board should have been given the option to vote on starting the year with 100-percent virtual learning.
“COVID cases are rising rapidly. There seems to be no end in sight with where we’re heading on that,” Huff said, citing increasingly-crowded hospitals in northeast Georgia and other parts of the state. “I think we’re going to potentially overwhelm the system with sickness in the schools. I think it’s inevitable that we’re going to go to virtual learning. …This is one of the most important decisions we’ll make as a board. This is not only affecting students, and I understand they won’t learn nearly as well if they’re at home, but we’re affecting people’s lives and health. We’re affecting children’s lives and health.”
But chair Lynn Stevens rejected Huff’s idea of 100-percent virtual learning. She voted in favor of McMichael’s recommendation but said she would only support it with the assurance that the district would be committing to offering in-person instruction, absent any contrary orders from the state.
Stevens, who said she was “extremely disappointed in the board,” said students had been away from a classroom setting for too long and noted they wouldn’t be as susceptible to the worst effects of the virus as older age groups. She also said being out of school would have a negative psychological impact on all students and an even more detrimental effect on those and their families who are socioeconomically disadvantaged.
“Our job is to educate children and we cannot do that if they’re not in the classroom,” Stevens said. “…If we can’t do that, I don’t know why we’re here. We’ve got people classified as ‘essential’ working in grocery stores and Walmart, but we can’t figure out a way to safely teach our kids?
“You cannot let fear dictate what we do.”
McMichael said the adopted calendar gives the district the most flexibility to adjust to an all-virtual format if necessary.
“We’re trying to be as nimble as possible,” he said. “Nobody involved in education likes change but it’s where we are.”
While the district still plans to require mask-wearing on school buses and other crowded areas and among staffers, it still is not planning on a mandate that all students who are able to wear masks wear them at all times.
“It’s disappointing to me we’re not enforcing the wearing of masks at all times,” Huff said. “I think that’s the least we can do to try to slow down the spread of this virus. I can’t imagine we’re not going to see a tremendous rise in cases (with the reopening), and I think that’s a minimum thing we should be doing.”
Also under the plan approved Monday, the district will plan on having student orientations at each school during the week of Aug. 10-14 while spreading out the number of students who attend at a time. Students planning to attend school in-person are asked to attend the orientation with one parent and will be placed in small groups to meet their teachers, see their classrooms and participate in a short health and safety training session. Students participating in distance learning will have a digital orientation the same week.
District officials said more details about the orientations will be emailed to students and families prior to Aug. 10.
McMichael again stressed that as more updated pandemic information comes along, the schedule could change once again.
Bramlett said she favored the most stability for families as possible and asked that the community be “respectful” of the board and the district as it wades it way through the situation.
“Everybody is doing the very best they can,” Bramlett said. “We’re going to have to give each other some grace.”
The 2020 Statham Sunflower Festival has been canceled amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, city officials announced Thursday, July 16.
The annual daylong festival, the city’s largest event every year, had been scheduled for Sept. 19. But as COVID-19 cases have continued to spike locally and around the state without any immediate sign of slowing down, the city’s festival committee decided at a Monday, July 13 meeting to scrap the event.
Festival officials said vendors would be issued refunds.