A Small Georgia City Plans to Put Students in Classrooms This Week

JEFFERSON, Ga. — When Jennifer Fogle and her family moved from Indiana to Georgia 13 years ago, they settled in Jefferson, a small, handsome city an hour’s drive from Atlanta, because they had heard about the excellent schools. And until recently, they had little to complain about. The teachers are passionate and committed, and the facilities rival those found at some private schools.

But in recent days Ms. Fogle found herself uncharacteristically anxious, after learning that Jefferson City Schools planned to offer face-to-face instruction in the midst of a resurgent coronavirus pandemic that has seen thousands of new cases reported daily in Georgia.

As other districts around the state delayed their back-to-school days or moved to all-remote learning, Jefferson school officials announced that they were sticking with their Friday start date, one of the earliest in the nation. And while school officials said they would “strongly encourage” masks for students and teachers, they stopped short of making masks mandatory.

Ms. Fogle, 46, a stay-at-home mother, thinks these decisions are unwise. But after weighing her options, including online education promoted by the district but taught by a private company or the state, she decided it best to let her two teenage children embrace the risks and physically attend Jefferson High School. It seemed futile, she said, to go against the grain in a heavily pro-Trump community where many see masks as an infringement of their personal freedom — and in a state where the Republican governor, Brian Kemp, has been urging districts to reopen their classrooms despite the pandemic’s growing toll.

“I can’t fix it,” Ms. Fogle said. “So I have to learn, how do we live life as normal as possible and still try to protect ourselves?”

The reopening plans have starkly divided Jefferson, a middle-class city of about 12,000 people, offering a likely preview of the contentious debates ahead for many other communities whose school years start closer to the end of summer.

An online petition created by two Jefferson High seniors calling for a mandatory-mask rule has garnered more than 600 signatures. But a competing petition demanding that masks remain a choice for students has attracted more than 200 signers, some of whom have left comments that underscore the politicized nature of the disagreement. “Only liberals can get rona and I’m not a liberal,” wrote one, using a slang term for the coronavirus. “TRUMP2020 no mask fo me.”

Several teachers told The New York Times they were concerned about their health and the health of others. All of them requested anonymity because they feared retaliation. One teacher said he had numerous underlying health issues and was afraid to go back into the classroom.

“I think they’re worried about upsetting people who aren’t taking Covid seriously,” the teacher said. He noted that Governor Kemp is suing Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, a Democrat, over her efforts to mandate masks in the city. “So many Republicans at all levels of government aren’t taking this seriously.”

But other teachers say they are ready to go back to work. “I’m not paranoid, actually, of the virus. I’m more worried about our kids and their well-being if we don’t get them back into the classroom,” said Katie Sellers, an eighth-grade physical science teacher at Jefferson Middle School.

Ms. Sellers has two students in the district, an eighth grader and a senior. She said she was letting them make up their own minds about whether to wear masks. “My senior has absolutely said no” on the grounds that school feels like a “safe space” for him, she said.

Dr. McMullan said 2 percent of students have selected the remote-learning option. Those students will be able to choose between at least two programs, one provided by a private company called Edgenuity and the other by Georgia Virtual School, which is run by the state.

The teachers of online classes will be state certified, but some parents were disappointed they were not teachers from the Jefferson system. Pete Fuller, a candidate for a local seat in the State Legislature, said his two children, an eighth and a ninth grader, would be starting the year learning from home. “The choice was basically given and it’s not the choice I want to make,” he said.

Mr. Fuller said his ninth grader, Rainey Fuller, 14, a trombone player, tried to attend marching band practice this month, and became uncomfortable when many students stopped wearing masks by the second day.

Last week, about 30 incoming freshmen and their parents arrived in the big school auditorium for an introductory session led by the principal, Brian Moore. Normally, the hundreds of incoming freshmen would show up in one session, but because of the virus they had broken into smaller sessions. About a third of them were wearing masks.

As he set out to find his new classrooms with his mother, Hunter Walker, 14, said he did not plan to wear a mask. “No one around my age has really been affected by it as much,” he said. Then he noted that a football player who had been exposed to the coronavirus had been at a weight training session last Monday, forcing coaches to shut down ninth-grade football practice for the week.

It was one of many indications that this could be a very long year on campus — or, in fact, a very short one.

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