COBB COUNTY, Ga. — As parents rush to buy backpacks and pencils, COVID-19 cases have started to rise. Instead of a gradual climb, graphs show an alarming line shooting up. The data has some parents concerned.
11Alive’s investigative team, The Reveal, spoke with one Cobb County family about how they are navigating through the pandemic. The district returned to class this week.
Asali Edwards is an incoming freshman at North Cobb High School. She has mixed emotions about summer coming to an end. The start of school means homework, but it also means back-to-school shopping, which this year netted her a few T-shirts with her favorite band names and some new boots.
Asali and her older sister attended most of the last school year virtually. When positive case numbers dropped dramatically, her family agreed it was safe enough to return after the spring break.
Her mom, Keisha Edwards, is trying to remain optimistic about this school year, but admits the delta variant isn’t making it easy.
“I think the odds of them getting through the first semester seamlessly in terms of there not being any cases there in their schools… very slim, very slim,” Keisha Edwards explained.
Parents said it was nerve-racking every time they got one of those emails announcing another student had tested positive. While the emails may have felt never-ending, the data offers some perspective.
WHAT THE DATA SAYS
Five percent of the Georgia’s 1.7 million school-aged children across the state have tested positive since the start of the pandemic. That means 95% of children never tested positive for the virus.
Still, the data does give us reason to be cautious. Think back to last August. Cases at the end of July were averaging about 314 new positive test results each day among school-aged children 5 to 17 years old. It was enough for districts to push back the start date of class.
Even when students did start school, they attended virtually. By mid-August, roughly 260 children and youth were still testing positive each day statewide. Schools didn’t even begin to open their doors to in-person learning until cases dropped in half, and when they did, almost all required students and staff to wear masks.
But this year, students will head back to class in person with more COVID-19 in their communities and growing. As of Wednesday, about 390 school-aged children were testing positive each day and several districts, like Cobb, are not requiring students or staff to wear masks.
“I think it’s very short-sighted, possibly political. And I think that COVID has proven that when people are left to their own devices, they won’t necessarily do what makes the most common sense and what is in the interest of the greater good,” Keisha Edwards said.
Asali said after her brief experience in the classroom last year, without a mandate, “they're not going to wear it at all. I know that for a fact.”
Last school year, cases hit their peak in mid-January, when students averaged 742 new cases per day. Epidemiologist Dr. Cherie Drenzek said we should prepare for more spikes.
“What's really characteristic about this delta variant is that it spreads really rapidly. It's very easily transmissible from one person to another. So, that's the bad news about delta. But the good news the available vaccines are very effective against it, particularly against severe outcomes, particularly against hospitalizations and deaths,” Drenzek explained.
Data from the Georgia Department of Public Health shows about a quarter of all middle and high school students have been vaccinated. Dr. Drenzek would like to see those numbers higher, but even with the increase in cases, she fully supports kids going to class.
“It's very, very critical for their learning that they be in person because schools can open in-person very safely," Drenzek said.
Since the start of this pandemic, one percent of school-aged children with COVID-19 have needed hospital care. Of those, 80 percent, have been older students -- the ones who can get the vaccine. Drenzek said that and masks are going to be key to keeping kids face to face.
Asali and her sister didn’t hesitate to roll up their sleeve.
“It's an extra measure to keep you protected, other than just a massive social distance thing, like something that's actually in your body,” she said.
Keisha Edwards wants her girls to be able to attend in person, but she also wants to keep them safe. She’s frustrated the district doesn’t have more options for students to attend virtually.
While Cobb County does have a virtual option, Edwards said it doesn’t have the same variety of classes, especially for advanced students, and there are no virtual clubs or other activities to keep students engaged.
“When you’re looking at the rigor of the classes or the breadth of the choices presented, you’re kind of forced to choose the in-person option if you want your child to continue to benefit from those classes," Keisha Edwards explained.
Learn more about Cobb County's back-to-school plan here.
The Reveal is an investigative show exposing inequality, injustice, and ineptitude created by people in power throughout Georgia and across the country.