FULTON COUNTY — Officials with the Fulton County School System continue to be challenged in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic as they work to keep schools open and safe.

The district was forced to resume the second semester with online instruction without the option of face-to-face instruction in classrooms as previously planned.

Students who chose the in-school option were slated to return to classrooms this week following the planned holiday on Monday.

“I won’t belabor the point [that] the trend data for positive cases is challenging,” Fulton Superintendent Mike Looney said during last week’s meeting of the school board.

He noted the state hit a grim milestone on the day before the Jan. 12 meeting, with 145 Georgians dying of COVID-related complications in single day.

The Jan. 8 epidemiology report from the Fulton County Public Health Department showed all 13 municipalities in the Fulton School System, including the five cities in North Fulton, were in the “red,” signifying a COVID positivity rate of more than 100 per 100,000 population.

Of some consolation was a slight downward tick for all but one of the cities from the previous week’s report. Mountain Park showed no change from the previous week’s numbers.

“While the data continues to [be a concern], I want to remind the public that our ability to manage COVID cases within our school district is making a difference inside our schools,” Looney said.

He pointed to the district’s robust contact tracing for exposed individuals, social distancing and mask mandates for everyone inside buildings, and the constant disinfection and cleaning of schools.

Looney said he has been in numerous meetings with experts in COVID management, and all have concluded that the spread of COVID is not made worse by students being back in schools.

“The reality is while schools are a microcosm of what is happening in the greater community, there is no data that suggests that by having children in session that the numbers of cases go up for students or employees,” Looney said.

In earlier meetings Looney compared COVID data from Fulton Schools, which re-opened classrooms in October, and Atlanta Schools with virtual learning in place since August. COVID rates showed little difference, he noted.

Looney is counting on the COVID vaccination to begin the slow road to normal. On Saturday, vaccinations were provided at Mercedes Benz stadium for the districts’ approximately 2,000 employees over the age of 65.

“I am thankful our board of health has [arranged it] so that our most vulnerable employees among us will have the opportunity to be vaccinated before the resumption of face-to-face classes,” Looney said.

Vaccinating the rest of the school staff is equally important, noted Looney. He serves on Gov. Brian Kemp’s advisory committee and said there has been “robust discussion” to ensure school-based staff are toward the front of the line for vaccinations.

Shortages of staff, due to the pandemic, are challenging every school system in the state as they struggle to keep classrooms open, Looney said.

Candy Waylock is an award winning education reporter who has covered all things education for Appen Media over the past 20 years. She is an Alpharetta resident.

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