By Crystal Gammon
In a press release listed on the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE) website www.gae.org, GAE announced that they filed a lawsuit against Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, State Superintendent Richard Woods, and the Georgia Department of Public Health for their failure to provide safe environments for teachers and students during the COVID-19 19 pandemic.
On Saturday, February 13, 2021, the GAE held a Member Rally for Safe In-Person Instruction in Schools. Several GAE members spoke on behalf of Georgia educators across our state in an effort to spread their message: Protect the health of our students, educators, and staff members.
GAE Rally for Safe Schools
President of GAE, Lisa Morgan, began the rally of over 500 people on Saturday morning by outlining the goal for making in-person learning safer for teachers, students, and staff across school districts in Georgia.
Mrs. Morgan along, with school leaders across the state, urge schools to follow the new guidelines outlined by the CDC. These guidelines include mandated masks for students and all staff, social distancing, hand washing, proper ventilation, and contact tracing. Many teachers and leaders report that their current counties are not following these guidelines.
Voices from the Field
The first to speak at the GAE rally was Superintendent of Clayton County Schools, Dr. Morcease Beasely, who has been an advocate of his staff and students’ safety in Clayton County Schools since the pandemic began. Dr. Beasley stated that his county consistently maintains a COVID dashboard that communicates data to the community regularly.
Marti Couey spoke on behalf of North Georgia Educators. Mrs. Couey, who hails from Rome City Schools, spoke up about schools in North Georgia that do not follow any safety guidelines to protect teachers, staff, and students. “The only consistency in Georgia is inconsistency,” Mrs. Couey stated.
Mr. Byron Bowers, President of the Chatham Association of Educators, spoke at the rally in favor of protecting the health and safety of the students, staff, and educators from South Georgia. Mr. Bowers urges Georgia leaders to make vaccinating staff and students in Georgia a priority. Mr. Bowers also urged families of Chatham county schools and the staff working within the county to stand together, stating, “1 without the other does not make a whole.” In a final statement, Mr. Bowers spoke beautifully, saying, “We love our schools and the Southern Georgia Communities we serve. We just want as many people to come back to this wonderful profession when this is all over.”
Also in attendance was President of Fulton County Association of Educators Carley Shaw. Mrs. Shaw discussed the efforts teachers and school staff have made to impress upon the Fulton County School board members stating, “We are not being listened to by our board. We go, and we speak, they smile, and they make decisions not following the CDC guidelines.”
Vice President of GAE and President of Richmond County Association of Educators, Dr. Sharon Doe, shared her message at the GAE Rally for Safer Schools. Sharon Doe shared her concern for the safety and well-being of her diverse school population. Dr. Doe shared a poem by Don Merrell called I Chose to Look the Other Way, and urged Georgia education leaders and government leaders to stop looking the other way. Dr. Doe pressed further, stating, “The Georgia Association of Educators is not looking the other way, and neither should you (educators and leaders in Georgia). Together we will organize, strategize, activate, and mobilize to have safe schools in every school district in Georgia.”
Finally, President of Cobb County Association of Educators Connie Jackson spoke about Cobb County educators’ tragic losses. “Bus Drivers are in intensive care….there is no safety in Cobb County,” Mrs. Jackson explained, “After losing three Cobb County teachers, Cobb County teachers have had three protests and rallies at the school board meetings trying to get the word out that Cobb is not safe.” Mrs. Jackson referenced that the Cobb County Superintendent, Chris Ragsdale, stated at the beginning of the year that ‘when cases are over 200, they would not be back in person.’ Yet, positive COVID cases are hovering between 700-900 currently, according to Mrs. Jackson, and Cobb County School board members are still not listening. Mrs. Jackson says teachers are forced to resign or work in unhealthy, dangerous conditions. One teacher in Cobb County has Leukemia, a cancer of blood-forming tissues is being forced to return to in-person teaching where there is still no mask mandate to make conditions safer for people like her.
Cobb County schools have suffered many losses to COVID 19 over the last few months. On Christmas day, Elementary Art teacher Patrick Key died from complications of COVID 19. Tragically, Cobb County Schools lost Dana Johnson, a first-grade teacher, and Cynthia Lindsey, a paraprofessional, just hours apart on January 21, 2021.
Call to Action
GAE issued the following letters to Superintendent in Georgia:
Georgia is experiencing a rollercoaster ride regarding the number of new cases of COVID-19 infection within the state. This has created an environment of uncertainty and confusion within local school districts on determining when or if to continue in-person instruction. Recent data indicates that our school-aged children continue to show infections at a high level. For the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE), its members and local associations, it comes down to how best to keep all students, educators, and their families safe. This seems to be contrary to how many of our school district leaders are making their decisions to bring students and educators back to our school buildings. However, we are saying safety MUST be the number one priority when making such decisions.
While many are looking to the recent article published by JAMA – the Journal of the American Medical Association (Honein MA, Barrios LC, Brooks JT. Data and Policy to Guide Opening Schools Safely to Limit the Spread of SARS-CoV-2 Infection. JAMA. Published online January 26, 2021. doi:10.1001/jama.2021.0374) – that provides parameters and guidelines for returning to our schools, there seems to be a selective interpretation of its recommendations. JAMA clearly says we should return IF, and this is what is seemingly being ignored, IF recommended guidelines have been met.
We hold steadfast to the thinking that Georgia’s local school boards must adhere to and provide clear, easy-to-navigate community spread metrics criteria and must follow the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) guidelines – including the “Ifs.” That is – If thresholds haven’t been met and mitigation efforts are not fully implemented – schools either stay closed or close If they are open, until such time guidelines and thresholds have been met.
School boards must also provide an easy-to-understand tool for communicating these metrics and information clearly, and on a timely basis, to the community via all available communication channels. This information must include the number of cases of COVID-19 infections, quarantines, hospitalizations, and deaths. These numbers must be constantly updated to ensure accuracy.
We are demanding that the following protocols be implemented where in-person instruction is taking place in our public school buildings. These include:
- Utilize the current community spread data to determine whether our school districts will be virtual, hybrid, or in-person.
- Expand vaccination efforts across the state to ensure securing enough vaccine doses so that everyone has equitable access to the vaccine and ensuring distribution logistics are in place.
- Work with local school districts and local officials to develop local protocols for the timely delivery of the vaccine.
- Expand COVID-19 testing efforts to include local and equitable access to frequent rapid-testing.
- Implement the following mitigation efforts as outlined in the CDC JAMA paper:
- Mandate and enforce the proper wearing of masks by all individuals present on school property (i.e., building, buses, grounds, etc.).
- Social distancing.
- OSHA review for ventilation of all schools.
- Implement screening testing to identify asymptomatic infected individuals.
The recently-updated CDC guidelines clearly and succinctly state what is essential to safely reopen our public school buildings for in-person learning. No one wants to return to our classrooms and school buildings more than our Georgia educators and education support professionals. In order to do so, we must follow the science and make sure all Georgia schools have the resources to effectively implement these guidelines.Educators wholly understand the pitfalls and deficiencies of virtual learning, but one sick or dead child and/or educator is one too many. We can remediate but we cannot resuscitate.
Georgia Association of Educators
In addition to these demand letters, GAE urges everyone to text “pledge” to 48744 and take the GAE Safe Schools Pledge.
Mrs. Morgan ended the GAE Rally for Safer Schools with a final thought, “We can remediate, but we cannot resuscitate.”
If you support the message of GAE and wish to show your support, remember to Wear Red on Wednesdays for Red for Ed and report dangerous situations in your schools. Join www.GAE.org to learn more about how you can help to make your schools safer for everyone.