Georgia eases quarantine and contact tracing in schools

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia is easing COVID-19 quarantine and contact tracing requirements in schools as Gov. Brian Kemp urges superintendents to keep students attending in person.

Kemp and Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey published a letter on Thursday saying school employees no longer have to quarantine after being exposed to the virus, even if they are not vaccinated or test positive for the virus as long as they wear a mask and do not develop of symptoms.

The letter also states that contact tracing in schools is now optional, meaning schools may no longer have to notify other students or employees exposed to people with COVID-19.

The governor has come under pressure from other Republicans to force all schools to resume in-person classes. Six Atlanta-area school districts had transitioned to virtual learning this week, impacting more than 350,000 students, though the City of Atlanta District said it would return to in-person learning on Monday. Georgia has 1.74 million public school students statewide.

“Students, parents and educators have made it clear they want to be in the classroom, and we are exploring many methods to continue safe in-person learning, including updated quarantine and isolation protocols, reduced contact tracing requirements and increased testing,” Kemp and Toomey wrote in their letter.

The announcement came as hospitalized COVID-19 patients continued to climb rapidly, topping 4,500 for the first time since late September. More than a quarter of all hospitalized patients statewide have tested positive for COVID-19. The use of intensive care beds in Georgia has also started to increase in recent days. In the Atlanta metro area, emergency rooms at 26 hospitals were refusing ambulances due to overcrowding, according to state data.

Georgia set a new record for daily cases on Wednesday, recording more than 25,000 cases for the first time ever. Cases fell slightly on Thursday, but Georgia’s seven-day rolling average of cases continued to top 20,000.

Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said she was already hearing from members unhappy with the changes.

“If our goal is to ensure students can stay in person for instruction, we should be doing everything we can to mitigate the spread of the virus,” Morgan said. “Now is the time for us to be stricter.”

Many previous school closures across Georgia have been caused by sick or quarantined teachers, a difficulty exacerbated by many people’s reluctance to substitute. Rising infections could lead more schools to switch to virtual teaching.

“It’s your Hail Mary because you know you won’t get enough people because it’s more contagious,” Morgan said of the omicron variant. “But it won’t work because more people will get sick.”

Kemp and Toomey wrote that the Department of Public Health will offer to conduct voluntary testing of students, faculty, staff and their family members, whether or not they have symptoms of COVID-19, in each district that can identify a testing site.

The department issued a new quarantine order on Wednesday with the changes. It continues to give each school district the ability to develop its own quarantine rules.

State Rep. Rebecca Mitchell, a Democrat from Snellville with a doctorate in epidemiology, said sending potentially infectious teachers to schools after five days of isolation without testing is an unnecessary risk. She said requiring testing would “protect our communities and keep our educators healthy and able to educate children.” She also urged the state to provide better quality masks for students and school staff.

Cobb County, Georgia’s second-largest school district, told employees Thursday that all staff should return to work immediately, as long as they remain asymptomatic and wear a mask. The district also announced a reduction in contact tracing.

“The District understands that this process has been time consuming for you as staff and may not be the most effective way to identify those who have been impacted by COVID-19,” wrote John Floresta, Director of Cobb’s strategy and accountability, in an email to Personal.

The district of 107,000 students avoided mask requirements for students despite a fierce political struggle to find some parents and a minority of board members.

David Perdue, one of Kemp’s main Republican opponents in this year’s gubernatorial race, said Tuesday he would issue an executive order to force all schools back to in-person learning.

“Unfortunately, Brian Kemp continues to fail us by caving in to the liberal administrators in Atlanta,” Perdue said in a statement. “These administrators have been let loose for too long – it’s time to put parents back in the driver’s seat.”


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