By the fourth week of the new school year this month, COVID had exploded across Georgia’s Bulloch County School District. As of Monday, 900 students in the district of just 11,000 had tested positive for coronavirus in the first three weeks of school.
For weeks, teachers and many parents had called for a mask mandate. But superintendent Charles Wilson refused to issue one. Instead, on Thursday night, he sent an email blast with the subject line “word of encouragement” to all the teachers in the district. After thanking them “for all that you are doing for our students and for each other,” the email, which has been seen by The Daily Beast, continued:
“I talked with principals today and we all agreed that, though it is a small gesture, you would enjoy the liberty of wearing jeans for the next month. So, by all means, please enjoy your jeans throughout the month of September (and the rest of August).”
If Wilson had meant his email to quiet the growing anger among his employees, it did just the opposite.
“It was super offensive,” one teacher at a school in the district, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of professional reprisal, told The Daily Beast. She said she has written to Wilson and the school board several times this year to beg for mask mandates but has never gotten a response.
“Every day we march into school is like going to war, and the only weapons that we have are masks and vaccines if we’ve chosen to get it,” a second elementary school teacher in the district, who also asked to remain anonymous for fear of professional reprisal, said. “And our administrators sit in their offices sending out condescending little emails, as if jeans are going to help protect us or our families from getting sick.”
Wilson, who as superintendent has the authority to impose COVID-mitigation measures such as mask mandates, did not respond to multiple calls, emails, and text messages on Friday.
In many ways, the problems in Bulloch County are a microcosm of the growing problem in Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp’s steadfast refusal to impose any COVID mitigation measures in the schools has combined with low vaccination rates to create one of the fastest COVID spirals in the Southeast.
Since the start of the school year, COVID cases in Georgia have nearly tripled, soaring from a seven-day average of 4,500 to almost 13,000 between Aug. 5 and Aug. 26, according to Johns Hopkins University data. But among school-aged children between 5 and 17, the virus is spreading even faster. In that same time period, that average more than quadrupled from 390 to 1688.
As the crisis has mounted, many districts in Georgia have rolled out mitigation measures—from mask mandates to district closures and hybrid schedules. But Bulloch County has not been one of them.
“I am surprised Bulloch is still at the point of discussing masks when so many other districts in the area have closed because of the number of cases,” said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, an advocacy group for public school teachers in the state.
As of Wednesday, more than half the students in the state were attending a school with a mask mandate, and another 26 districts and charter schools were currently shut down, temporarily moving to all-virtual curricula, according to an AP analysis.
And, teachers say, the consequences of inaction in Bulloch County have been obvious. In the last two weeks, more than 1 percent of all school-aged kids have tested positive for coronavirus in Georgia. But in Bulloch County, 3.5 percent of all school-aged children, more than triple the rate statewide, have been infected with COVID in the last two weeks, according to data from the Georgia Department of Health.
By Monday, three weeks into the school year, 4,900 students were in quarantine, though in this district, which allows students with direct contact to continue attending classes unmasked until they show symptoms, that was less restriction than label.
This district has also apparently tried to give the impression of taking action on masks without really taking much action. On Aug. 12, during the second week of school, the district announced in a Facebook post that Wilson had activated the district’s “high spread protocol.” But the dramatic-sounding move represented just a sliver of change: signs encouraging mask-wearing would now be placed throughout each school. Masks were still not required, classes remained in session and students who had been exposed were still allowed to attend those classes, unmasked, until they showed symptoms.
This flies in the face of current CDC recommendations for schools, which advise masking for all students and teachers as well as vaccines, social distancing, routine testing, ventilation and sanitation.
“We don’t need to be at the school. We don’t even want to be at the school, and I hate to say that because I’ve done this job a long time. But our students are sick, we’re getting sick. Our families are getting sick. We don’t need to be here,” a third teacher, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Daily Beast.
Many parents seem to agree. Since the start of the year, the Bulloch County Schools Facebook page has exploded with angry comments from parents. Their concerns have generated responses but little action.
On Aug. 19, in response to what Wilson called the “many and diverse perspectives across our community regarding COVID-19,” the superintendent posted on Facebook a letter to parents with tips on how to keep their kids safe, such as “daily hygiene” and “mak[ing] sure your child gets their necessary exercise, rest, and dietary needs met to help develop a healthy immune system.” Wilson made no mention of masks or vaccination. He closed the message with a “hang in there.”
“Unbelievably insulting and entirely tone deaf,” Adam Brady, a parent in the district, commented below the post. “I cannot believe that I live in a community with this level of failure to acknowledge and address a problem of this magnitude.”
Just 21 percent of people in Bulloch County have been fully vaccinated. In comparison, the statewide rate in Georgia, which has one of the 10 lowest vaccination rates in the country, is 40 percent.
On Wednesday, Jonathan McCollar, the mayor of Statesboro, which is Bulloch’s county seat, wrote on Facebook that the local hospital was nearly at capacity, with 18 COVID patients on ventilators. “The Mayo Clinic,” he wrote, “is predicting that we may begin to see as many as 300 cases per day” in the town of 31,000 people.
On Sunday, two employees of Sugar and Spice, a daycare in Bulloch County, were found dead in their homes after testing positive for COVID. A third worker at the same daycare is currently hospitalized.
Some Georgia school districts have been so overrun that they can’t staff classrooms. In Bulloch County, a shortage of bus drivers has forced the district to change its bus routes and dismiss some classes early to accommodate the delays.
“It really is like sailing off to war. After the weekend, we don’t know who’s coming back,” the second teacher told The Daily Beast. “I walked in on Monday and we realize half the staff isn’t there.”
All three teachers who spoke to The Daily Beast said that Wilson hasn’t grasped the severity of the situation.
“It seems like he has no idea what’s happening in his district, almost like he doesn’t really believe that it could exist, that something bad’s really happening,” the first teacher told The Daily Beast. “It’s just, ‘Oh think positive thoughts and dig in there and we’ll get through this,’ when people are sick and dying.”
One teacher told The Daily Beast that her school told teachers during a meeting in July that this year they were not to use the word “COVID” when discussing the virus with students and their parents. They were instead to use the word “infectious diseases.”
“People aren’t dropping like flies from diarrhea. It’s the same thing we dealt with last year,” that teacher said. “Why can’t we use the same name?”
When it comes to the olive-branch of blue jeans wearing, Morgan, however, said she can see, at least somewhat, where Wilson may have been coming from.
“Y’all don’t know how important our jeans are to us,” Morgan told The Daily Beast. “My former principal, our Christmas gift would be five jeans passes. So I can see to educators how that would be a boost to morale. But it doesn’t help much when you’re in a district that isn’t following CDC mitigation guidelines and cases in Georgia are the highest they have ever been among school children.”