Georgia is easing COVID-19 quarantine and contact tracing requirements in schools as Gov. Brian Kemp urges superintendents to keep students attending in person.

Kemp and Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey released a letter Thursday saying that school employees no longer have to quarantine after they are exposed to the virus, even if they are unvaccinated or test positive for the virus as long as they wear a mask and don't develop symptoms.

The letter also says contact tracing in schools is now optional, meaning schools may no longer have to notify other students or employees exposed to people who are sick with COVID-19.

The governor has been under pressure from other Republicans to force all schools to resume in-person classes. Six Atlanta-area school districts had switched to virtual learning this week, affecting more than 350,000 students, although the Atlanta city district has said it will return to in-person learning Monday. Georgia has 1.74 million public school students statewide.

"Students, parents, and educators have made it clear that they want to be in the classroom, and we are looking into many methods to continue safe, in-person learning –- including updated quarantine and isolation protocols, reduced contact tracing requirements and augmented testing," Kemp and Toomey wrote in their letter.

The announcement came as hospitalized COVID-19 patients continued to climb rapidly, rising above 4,500 for the first time since late September. More than a quarter of all hospitalized patients statewide have tested positive for COVID-19. Intensive care bed usage in Georgia has also begun to climb in recent days.

In the metro Atlanta area, emergency rooms at 26 hospitals were refusing ambulances because of overcrowding, according to state data.

Georgia set a new high for daily cases Wednesday, recording more than 25,000 cases for the first time ever. Cases went down a little on Thursday, but Georgia's seven-day rolling average of cases continued to exceed 20,000.

Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said she was already hearing from members unhappy with the changes.

"If our goal is to ensure students are able to remain in person for instruction, we should be doing everything possible to mitigate the spread of the virus," Morgan said. "Now is the time for us to be more stringent."

Many previous school closures across Georgia have been caused by teachers sickened or placed into quarantines, a difficulty exacerbated by the unwillingness of many people to substitute. Rising infections could lead to more schools shifting to virtual instruction.

"This is your Hail Mary because you know you're not going to have enough people because this is more contagious," Morgan said of the omicron variant. "But it's not going to work because more people are going to get sick."

Kemp and Toomey wrote that the Department of Public Health will offer to conduct voluntary testing of students, faculty, staff and their family members, whether they have COVID-19 symptoms or not, in each district that can identify a testing site.

The department issued a new quarantine order Wednesday with the changes. It continues to give each school district the flexibility to develop its own quarantine rules.

State Rep. Rebecca Mitchell, a Snellville Democrat who has a doctorate in epidemiology, said sending potentially infectious teachers into schools after five days of isolation without a test is an unnecessary risk. She said requiring tests would "protect our communities and allow our educators to remain healthy and able to educate children." She also urged the state to provide better-quality masks to students and school staff.

Cobb County, Georgia's second largest school district, told employees earlier Thursday that all staff had to return to work immediately, as long as they remained asymptomatic and wore a mask. The district also announced a reduction in contact tracing.

"The district knows this process has been time-consuming for you as staff and also may not be the most effective way to identify those who have been affected by COVID-19," Cobb Chief Strategy and Accountability Officer John Floresta wrote in an email to staff.

The 107,000-student district has eschewed mask requirements for students despite a bitter political struggle seeking them from some parents and a minority of board members.

David Perdue, one of Kemp's Republican primary opponents in this year's gubernatorial race, said Tuesday that he would issue an executive order to force all schools to return to in-person learning.

"Unfortunately, Brian Kemp continues to fail us by caving to liberal administrators in Atlanta," Perdue said in a statement. "These administrators have been given free rein for far too long — it's time to put parents back in charge."