Second Georgia school closed for weeks as quarantines grow

ATLANTA (AP) — A suburban Atlanta school district temporarily stopped in-person instruction at a second of its six high schools on Wednesday, saying an increasing number of COVID-19 cases was forcing large numbers of Cherokee County students and teachers into quarantine.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s largest school district struggled to launch online learning for its 180,000 students, as parents complained that their students repeatedly tried and failed to log into Gwinnett County’s online system.

Cherokee County is the largest school district in Georgia that’s currently offering face-to-face classes. But a rising number of infections is forcing large numbers of students and employees into quarantine. The district announced it would close Woodstock High School until Aug. 31, a day after it made the same announcement at Etowah High School. Each school has about 2,500 students.

“As of this morning, the number of positive cases at the school had increased to a total of 14 with tests for another 15 student pending; and, as a result of the confirmed cases, 289 students and staff are under quarantine and, should the pending tests prove positive, the total would significantly increase,” Cherokee County Superintendent Brian Hightower wrote in a message to parents.

It’s unclear whether any students or employees were infected at school.

Statewide, Georgia’s seven-day average in deaths hit another new record, as officials continue to compile deaths from the COVID-19 spike that began in June. Total deaths rose to nearly 4,500 on Wednesday, with 67 deaths a day reported to the state on average in the past week. Some of those deaths occurred in July.

The total number of cases rose past 225,000, as close to 3,500 cases a day continue to be confirmed. The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized continued to drift downward slowly. But critical care beds remain in short supply, with 87% filled statewide, and the number of people on a ventilator Wednesday rose to 1,272, the highest on record since the pandemic began. Not everyone in a critical care bed or on a ventilator is infected with the respiratory illness.

On Tuesday, Cherokee County listed at least 826 students had been quarantined but by Wednesday that number jumped to 1,156. With 37 staff members also on the quarantine list, there are almost 1,200 people isolating themselves to stop the spread of the virus, although it’s likely that many aren’t infected.

Cherokee County parent Miranda Wickert withdrew her two children to homeschool them this year in search of stability. She said the wave of quarantines are proving her fear correct that there would be waves of openings and closings.

“I just don’t know this is sustainable,” she said. “I don’t know how this is equitable, this constant in and out of school.”

The quarantines have affected more than 20 schools in the district. The district gave parents the option of sending their children to school or having them learn from home to start the year. Nearly a quarter chose to learn from home.

Etowah High School was among those that made headlines last week after a photo showed dozens of maskless students squeezed together for first-day-of-school senior photos.

Gwinnett County is among the large metro Atlanta districts that have chosen to offer virtual classes to all of its students at the beginning of the year. Like many schools nationwide this year, Gwinnett wants to offer much more real-time learning, instead of the work-at-your-own pace options that were the most common in the spring.

But technology troubles could make that difficult. A system test Monday had already produced widespread difficulties, when many students couldn’t sign in. District officials pledged improvement, but Wednesday brought the same complaints.

Wednesday afternoon, the district asked parents to have students sign in as early as possible on future days, hoping to spread out the number of new users.

“Although the district ran tests on its systems, we could not replicate having tens of thousands of students actually logging on at the same time,” district spokesperson Bernard Watson said in a statement. “Throughout the morning, our technology team worked diligently to identify the problems, take corrective action, and get more students online and into their digital classes faster. Ultimately, we succeeded in having approximately 150,000 users online and learning at 11 a.m. Our pledge is to do a better job tomorrow.”

Individual schools also asked parents and students to keep trying, Some found no problems.

“My kids were able to get logged in, they were fortunate,” said Johnnie Dardar, whose 8th grade and 11th grade sons attend school in Dacula. He said they had struggled with the Monday test but “things went off without a hitch” on Wednesday.

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Desiree Mathurin contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

Copyright © 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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