Granddaughter of Phillip White

Phillip White, a 68-year-old grandfather with serious lung and heart disease, fumed after learning his granddaughter might have been exposed to coronavirus in her Cherokee County kindergarten class.

White said he received a call Tuesday evening from R.M. Moore Elementary School telling him not to send his 5-year-old granddaughter to school after her teacher might have COVID-19.

“They literally sent me a potential death sentence home from school,” White said.

Because of his underlying health conditions, White has taken various precautions to limit his exposure to the virus. He feels the weight of staying as healthy as possible because he is helping raise his three grandkids, ranging in age from 2 to 9, after his daughter-in-law died by suicide June 10.

“Lord we pray for you to place your beautiful hedges around us and keep us safe,” he posted on Facebook.

Deaths of despair are expected to rise along with overdoses and rising rates of alcohol use, experts say. Nationwide and state data suggest the pandemic has already spurred increased drug use and overdose.

RELATED: Increase In Suspected Drug Overdoses In Georgia Amid COVID-19

Cherokee County came under scrutiny after photographs of jam-packed hallways with few students donning masks and other shots of dozens of high school seniors posing shoulder to shoulder on Monday’s first day of school went wildly viral.

The district is now on the brink of a full-scale crisis after three elementary schools and one middle school were exposed to COVID-19, resulting in the quarantining of 61 students and four educators.

With the first week of school not even finished yet, the cases have disrupted the district as parents, caregivers, teachers and administrators grapple with the reality of the pandemic spreading through the schools.

Barbara Jacoby, the spokeswoman for the school district, said the district is following its “COVID-19 Exposure and Response Plan” and notifying parents at each affected school.

Those schools are:

  • Sixes Elementary School: A second-grade student tested positive after class on Tuesday. The teacher and 20 other students in the class must quarantine for two weeks.
  • Hasty ES Fine Arts Academy: A first-grader tested positive after attending class on Monday. Ten students and the teacher must quarantine for two weeks.
  • R.M. Moore Elementary: A kindergarten teacher began showing symptoms after school on Monday. The teacher has not received definitive results back but was in close contact with a family member who has COVID-19, the district said. “Due to this exposure, the affected classroom will be temporarily closed, and the teacher, paraprofessional and 16 students in the class must quarantine for two weeks.” The school on Thursday notified parents "an individual in kindergarten" tested positive. 
  • Dean Rusk Middle School: An eighth-grade student’s positive test lead to 15 students being quarantined for two weeks.   

Research has shown children suffer milder symptoms than adults, but they can contract the virus and spread it, putting parents, teachers, caregivers and others at risk.

MORE: Percentage Of Children Infected With COVID-19 Has Tripled In Georgia

Public health officials and other experts warned for weeks that the reopening of schools while Georgia continued to be ravaged by the pandemic was a ticking time bomb. Georgia has reported more than 106,000 coronavirus cases in the last month – more than 37 other states have reported during the entire pandemic.

Some say their worst fears are now beginning to come to fruition.

Joshua Weitz, a quantitative biosciences professor at Georgia Tech whose mission is to understand how viruses transform human health and the fate of our planet, said the risk that a student has COVID-19 is “almost certainly much higher than folks perceive.”

Without mask restrictions, one case can become many, whether in a classroom, football team or summer camp, Weitz said.

“Even if adolescents/young adults will have predominantly mild infections, they sometimes have severe infections and then there’s also the risk of transmission to older individuals who are far more likely to have severe cases,” he said.

Dr. Marybeth Sexton, a member of the Serious Communicable Disease Unit at Emory University Hospital and a former Atlanta public school teacher, said “the jury’s still out” regarding whether children spread COVID-19 as much as adults.

“But for older kids and teenagers, it really does appear that they can be just as contagious and just as likely to transmit,” Sexton said.

She cited a recently released study in which coronavirus tore through a camp in North Georgia, forcing its closure. Of the 597 attendees, 58% took coronavirus tests and 76% of those tested had positive results.

Regarding reopening schools, Sexton said the rates of community spread are likely to make for exponential growth in cases that could force school closures.

“The thing that we really have to worry about there is both the fact that every one of those students, even if they're not susceptible, ends up going home to a family that may contain someone who is,” Sexton said. “And we really have to worry about our teachers.”

The pandemic instructs people like White to consider questions about whether to keep sending their grandchildren to school or quarantine together for the next 14 days at a risk to the students’ education.

Risking his own possible death is a worst outcome White doesn’t want to consider, he said.

“I didn't want to send them to start with, but their daddy thought they should go,” White said. “It created an iffy situation with a worst possible outcome of bad.”

Miranda Wicker, a former teacher for Cherokee County schools who now acts as a spokeswoman for teachers afraid of retaliation for speaking out, said many teachers have become increasingly anxious with cleaning supplies running low.

“They have one bottle of spray hand sanitizer. They have one bottle of desk cleaner,” Wicker said. “When they're empty, they send them back to the county to be refilled.”

Teachers feel like this is a failing on the part of the superintendent and the school board, Wicker said, but they love what they do and don’t want to stop educating children.

“It's a calling for most of them; it's not something they just do,” Wicker said. “So, to walk away from it takes a tremendous amount of force to push them into that. They don't want to quit their jobs and go do something else. They want to do this, but they want to do it safely.”

RELATED: Many Families Remain Eager On First Day Of In-Person Classes Despite Pandemic

One substitute teacher, Ashley Halischak, said she believes the situation is far more dire than the district is leading on because her phone has been ringing off the hook since Monday with schools needing someone to fill in.

In fact, she said, she’s received more than 36 phone calls.

“That’s 36 separate positions,” she said. “Like, that’s not the same school calling me over and over.”

But Halischak said she’s not interested. She’s not scared of the virus; she just doesn’t want to wear a mask all day.

Jamie Chambers said this week’s cases in Cherokee County schools helped him feel like his family made the right decision. He chose to start his children with digital learning to ensure safety and consistency. Fewer than one-quarter, 23%, of children in the county opted for virtual learning.

His daughter fought leukemia a few years ago, and he said teaching his younger children to wear masks and use safety precautions was possible.

"I was able to teach my toddler to wear a mask to be around his sister," Chambers said. "He pops on a mask and can keep it on."

With incentives, children can learn to wear masks safely and effectively, he said. 

With most of the county’s children still attending school in-person, he said, parents should expect more COVID-19 disruption.

“I'll be amazed if we make it to Labor Day without the entire district shut down,” Chambers said.