Local schools struggle with COVID outbreaks; varying guidelines frustrate parents

Published: Sep. 2, 2021 at 4:58 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - It’s been a month since many area schools across Georgia and South Carolina started back up.

For some, it’s been their first opportunity for full, in-person instruction since the beginning of the pandemic. But COVID guidelines vary from district-to-district. That, combined with some serious outbreaks, has some parents confused and distressed. WTOC Investigates decided to take a look at the various guidelines and talk to some of the people affected by them.

Ryan and Cheri Neely have three children in the Effingham County School District. They tell WTOC their 12-year-old daughter, a student at South Effingham Middle School, was exposed to the virus two weeks ago. They said they want to see the district enforce stricter policies to slow the spread, including a mask mandate for all students.

“We don’t have the choice right now to keep our kids at home,” said Cheri Neeley. “So, we have to rely on the public school system to educate our kids. But, while that’s happening, they need to be taking the steps to protect our kids.”

Effingham County is one of several local districts that’s faced a challenging start to the 2021 school year. The district reports 761 students and 218 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 so far this year. That’s 5.62 percent of students and 12.13 percent of its staff.

For a closer look at Effingham’s numbers, click here.

The Neeleys said they feel the district did not handle their daughter’s COVID-19 exposure appropriately.

“Initially, they did not even want her to quarantine,” Ryan Neeley said. “That was the bigger shock. It was, ‘come back to school as normal. If she strikes a fever, then you can keep her home.’ I’ve talked to my daughter about this, and we’re taking extra precaution.”

Other districts in our area - such as Bryan County - made changes to their guidelines, including requiring masks for all staff and students. So far this year, the district reports 828 combined cases of COVID-19. That’s a 7.4 percent positivity rate. The district provides its total number of positive COVID cases every week, a combination of students and staff. If you’d like to look at Bryan County Schools’ COVID-19 data, click here.

Meanwhile, in Savannah-Chatham County, masks aren’t enough for some families. Bernest Moore was one of four people who demonstrated outside of the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System headquarters Tuesday. The district offers virtual learning for some students, but not all. Moore said he thinks that needs to change.

“I had three nephews get COVID at one time. That’s why I’m marching for virtual learning,” Moore said.

Pediatrician Ben Spitalnick is one of 10 doctors with the Pediatric Associates of Savannah. He said they’ve been flooded with patients from districts all across our area who have either tested-positive for COVID or have been exposed.

“The sheer volume is through the Roof!” Spitalnick said. “There’s been a huge spike, as predicted. And even schools that are masking are a little bit better, but pretty much across the board the spike is huge.”

Spitalnick said the good news is the kids they see still aren’t getting that sick, despite the spread of the COVID-19 Delta Variant. Spitalnick said out of the roughly 18,000 patients they serve, fewer than 40 have been hospitalized and none have died. According to the CDC, since the start of the pandemic nationwide, 385 children under the age of 18 have died from COVID-19.

“Most of the younger ones are getting not that sick,” Spitalnick said. “There’s a few rare cases where they get very sick, especially if they have underlying conditions.

Spitalnick said one things stands out about the COVID patients they’re now seeing.

“The sickest ones we’re seeing are the teenagers, particularly the unvaccinated.”

While children typically still are not getting very ill, Spitalnick said some of their asymptomatic patients have given their parents COVID, and some of those parents have gotten very sick. With that risk in mind, he said he’d like to see local districts come up with uniform policies, such as requiring masks, following CDC quarantine guidelines and giving families more flexibility.

The Neeleys agree.

“At least give us an option,” Ryan Neeley said. “Let us decide what’s best for our children.”

The Effingham County School District did recently change some of its COVID-19 guidelines. Teachers, staff, and visitors now must wear masks, and kids who are exposed to COVID-19 and aren’t wearing a mask must quarantine.

Effingham Schools will be closed on Friday, Sept. 3. Superintendent Dr. Yancy Ford said the district is closing so people have extra time to get vaccinated if they want to, and so the district can deep-clean the schools.

Dr. Ford provided WTOC with the following statement in response to our story:

“Thanks for reaching out. As a School District, I want to first thank our staff, students, and families for their ongoing support and for the patience from our community as our school district maneuvers through a challenging start to the year. Despite various bumps in the road, one common denominator that keeps both parents and school staff members moving in the same direction is the care and commitment we have for our children. As we navigated through Covid-19 last school year, we were able to learn and make adjustments to protocols and processes to hopefully help us this year. Although some of our students experienced success in a virtual model last school year, most of our students needed in-person instruction to have success academically, socially and emotionally. Our teachers did a tremendous job in planning and establishing a virtual model for success. Unfortunately, asking our staff to operate both models with fidelity became difficult to say the least. The School District agrees with the Department of Public Health in that students, parents, and communities benefit from in-person learning. Therefore, we have continued our processes of cleaning, disinfecting, and socially distancing as practicable as possible to ensure in-person learning takes place. The district has partnered with Ecovasive Infectious Control, spraying every classroom, office, cafeteria, gymnasium, common areas, and buses prior to Day 1 of school to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. The District has also used our Clorox 360 machines each day and on the weekend to spray schools that were hot spots. Our teachers and staff members clean throughout the day. As we saw numbers rise, we asked our staff and visitors to wear masks and we highly encourage our students to do so as well. This week has seen a drop in positive cases and it is our hope that trend continues. It is our goal to continue in-person learning while working to ensure a safe school environment with flexibility where possible. We ask our families to reach out to us with questions and concerns so that we can communicate with each other and work through this pandemic together.”

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