In the early days of August, the Columbia County School District outside Augusta, Georgia, was determined to open its schools.
Despite a regional surge of COVID-19 cases early that month, the system of 28,000 students was among the first districts in America to put people back in classrooms, on Aug. 3.
The reason was pretty straightforward, said Superintendent Sandra Carraway: The vast majority of Columbia County parents said they wanted schools open. Waiting wasn't going to make anything better, she added, and the district offered a learn-from-home option as an alternative.
"We're doing very well," Carraway said at the end of the third week of classes.
Many teachers disagree. Forty-six students and 28 staff have tested positive for the virus, and 542 people have had to quarantine since school started, according to district figures as of Aug. 21. Teachers are trying to juggle students who come to school, those who opted for virtual learning, and those lost in the middle because of quarantine or because their parents switched them from in-person to virtual as outbreaks sprang up.
In-person school reopenings have been pushed by President Donald Trump, Republican politicians and many parents. But the experience of Columbia County and other districts that opened buildings this month shows a more complicated reality.
In many of these districts, large percentages of children are actually learning at home — because their parents chose virtual learning or because of a quarantine. Hybrid schedules also keep children at home on specific days or weeks.
"The reality is there is no one solution that fits everyone," said Cindy Mitchell, a parent of three children in Columbia County, all of whom are learning from home. She said she's acted as a whistleblower of sorts on behalf of local teachers who fear retribution from the district if they speak publicly about lax safety protocols and disorganization in reopening.
For example, staff and teachers are often confused about who's infected and who's merely under quarantine. Until recently, Columbia County administrators only alerted certain people to the cases. Some teachers told USA TODAY they only found out students in their classrooms had tested positive once parents posted the administrative notice they received to a Facebook group.
"Tracking attendance is a huge problem," said Judie Stork, a Spanish teacher at Lakeside High School in Columbia County.
Because kids keep moving around and class sizes keep changing, Stork sometimes teaches up to 20 students inside a modular trailer. Social distancing is difficult.
"It worries me that we're not always able to skip desks because of the numbers in some classes," she said.
'Boom — you get shut down'
The rest of America's schools will lurch into a new pandemic school year over the next few weeks.
Among urban districts, almost 80% will open remote-only, according to a new report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, an education research organization in Washington. Those districts often serve communities of color, which have been disproportionately hammered by the virus. Polling shows many Black parents would prefer to learn from home.
In the suburbs, there's more support for in-person learning: Only about 34% of suburban districts plan to start remote-only, according to the center's report.
Back-to-school decisions: Parents torn as some schools face greater reopening risks
Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, has said reopening schools is best for kids, but districts shouldn't bring people together if the rate of local positive virus cases exceeds 10%.
"You go in, people get infected, and — boom — you get shut down," Fauci said in a webinar hosted by Healthline, a medical news website.
That's been the problem in Georgia.
Columbia County had a 12.6% positive rate among coronavirus tests as of Aug. 24.
The state has the second-highest rate of new COVID-19 infections, according to the latest White House coronavirus task force report obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other news sites. That's actually an improvement. Georgia has dropped to 167 infections for every 100,000 people, from a previous 216. The national average is 93.
Georgia schools made headlines for other high-profile coronavirus outbreaks this month. The Cherokee County School District north of Atlanta had to quarantine hundreds of students after an outbreak, a number that grew to more than 2,000. In Dallas, Georgia, a photo of maskless high school students in hallways went viral. Days later, the high school had to temporarily shut down because of positive cases among students and staff.
Georgia's largest school district, Gwinnett County Schools, quarantined hundreds of employees even before students returned Aug. 12 because of an outbreak among staff during in-person planning.
In Columbia County, middle and high school students are required to wear masks during passing periods and when social distancing isn't possible. Some teachers told USA TODAY they can't do anything if students let them dangle or take them off in class.
Elementary school students, who have returned for in-person instruction five days a week, are not required to wear masks.
"Initially, we received no guidance that suggested they should," Carraway said.
In late July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended students wear masks, practice social distancing and wash their hands frequently in reopened schools.
Hundreds in quarantine
Teachers and students in reopened schools across the country are navigating new safety protocols.
"It's a challenge for everyone involved," said Tanya Hickson, a math teacher at Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, which opened Aug. 20. She posted a photo on Twitter of plexiglass dividers between closely packed student desks.
But the district requires masks, and students are good about wearing them, she said.
About 500 of the 1,200 students at Hickson's magnet school, Darnell-Cookman Middle-High School, have elected to return for a mix of in-person and at-home learning. The other students are learning virtually.
"I’m happy to see the faces of old students and get to know new students," Hickson said. "But it’s a lot of anxiety. It’s hard to not express that in front of the kids."
The risks of an outbreak are real.
In Tennessee, 97 virus cases were linked to the 109 districts that had started the year as of Aug. 13, most with in-person instruction.
In Florida, Martin County Schools sent more than 300 students home to quarantine because of virus cases within the first two weeks of school. Seminole County schools quarantined 175 students and staff after being open less than two weeks, the Orlando Sentinel reported. A minority of students in that district — 44% — are coming to in-person classes because of safety concerns.
Several schools in Indiana opened for in-person instruction and then shut down temporarily because of outbreaks. Avon Community Schools outside of Indianapolis opened July 29, only to revert to online learning for high school students because of positive cases. The school is now using both in-person and online learning, with students alternating between the two to reduce class sizes.
"You’re trying to keep track of kids who are COVID-positive, because they need lessons," said Suzy Lebo, a computer science teacher at Avon High School. "You’re also providing lessons to in-person people. And now we have kids dropping in-person and going to virtual because of situations happening at the school."
"There's a lot of fluidity."
Maskless students, missing students
Georgia was the first state to reopen its businesses, on April 24, and its governor has actively fought a mask mandate.
In Columbia County, as COVID-19 cases increased this summer, the number of parents that elected to have their kids learn in-person dropped from 85% to about 75%, according to the district.
Carraway, the superintendent, said the number of parents choosing in-person learning has remained steady since school started. Some teachers told USA TODAY dozens of their school's students have switched to learn-from-home; others reported just a couple have switched.
The logistics of attendance, class sizes and scheduling have challenged teachers at the middle and high schools. To enable social distancing, students attending in-person come every other day, according to where their name falls in the alphabet. But that hasn't made for an even split; a teacher may have seven students in class one day and the other 18 classmates the next.
Rosters are constantly changing. It's not always clear if a child is absent from in-person class because he or she is sick, or quarantining, or has switched from in-person learning to online classes and is therefore learning from a different teacher. Teachers say they wonder if some absent students have even been in touch with an instructor.
Carraway said they expected virus cases, but that parents wanted in-person learning, and science shows being in school is best for kids. The dissatisfied teachers are not representative of the district, she said. Many have reached out to share their approval.
Jannette Thomas, a science teacher at Grove Town High School, said all her students keep their masks on, and she has a large room that lets everyone spread out.
"Things are not utopia," added Danielle Starcher, a music teacher at River Ridge Elementary who travels room to room now, tapping out beats with children on disposable paper plates or plastic cups rather than shared instruments.
"Given the circumstances, we’re stepping up to the plate and doing the best we can."
Carraway added that older students are likely being more responsible wearing masks and sitting separately during lunch in school than they would be if they were learning from home.
"The vast majority of people are going out and doing things, and schools are probably the safest place students can be outside of isolation," she said.
Many Columbia County parents say they're happy schools are open. In fact, Caroline Washburn, a mother of daughters in middle and high school, said she wishes they could go every day.
Local private schools are providing instruction five days a week at all grade levels, which Washburn said she and her husband would prefer.
"When you go back to school, you’re going to have a rise in cases," Washburn said. "I’m hopeful that after the holidays, we do go back to a full-time attendance schedule. I can’t imagine this being the new normal."
A different approach next door
Next door, the Richmond County School District in Augusta is still waiting to open its schools.
More than 84% of the district's approximate 30,000 students are people of color, predominantly Black students. The rate of positive COVID-19 tests is currently 15.9% — well into the zone Fauci suggested would not be safe for reopening schools.
Already, 89 Richmond County employees have contracted the virus, according to the district. Two have died. The school board will decide on Sept. 1. whether students who wish to return face-to-face will be allowed to on Sept. 8, or if all children will start remotely instead, according to Richmond County school officials.
Whenver Richmond opens for in-person instruction, more than half of students won't be there. About 54% of parents have signaled they want to virtual instruction, according to the district.
Wayne Frazier, a Richmond County school board member and former school principal, said that's a good development, as there will be more space for kids to spread out in school buildings.
"We have a lot of single parents and a lot of working parents," Frazier said. "No answer is going to fit everyone."
One of those single, working parents is Mary Morning, who lives in Augusta and has two boys headed into fifth and sixth grades. Even though her younger son has special learning needs and she'll have to work from home again to monitor their progress, Morning thinks virtual education is the safer choice.
She regrets they'll miss orchestra and school sports teams, though.
"It's a lose-lose decision," she said./US TODAY