Ernie Lee is a teacher at Windsor Forest High School and the 2016 Georgia Teacher of the Year. He served on one of the six statewide Restart Working Groups created by Gov. Brian Kemp and State School Superintendent Richard Woods. (SCCPSS)

Ernie Lee flicks on a circle of LED lights, boots up his computer and checks his new professional-grade microphone. 

Program running. Webcam on. Showtime.

“What did the duck say at the lipstick counter?” 

The Savannah-Chatham County teacher answers himself, “Put it on my bill.”

Though the “really bad dad jokes” vary from morning to morning, Lee said his virtual school routine for his students at Windsor Forest High School won’t change anytime soon.

Savannah-Chatham County Schools plans to allow a portion of its 37,000 students back Oct. 5. 

But Lee, Georgia’s Teacher of the Year in 2016 and a member of Gov. Brian Kemp’s committee studying school reopening, is not going to be there. 

He is among 57% of teachers who have told the district they will not return to in-class teaching this calendar year. About 38% of teachers have said they will return in the time frame voted by the school board in a meeting last week, according to an email from Stacy Jennings, director of communications for the district. Five percent of teachers had not committed to either option as of Friday.

“I chose no, simply because I just don’t feel like it’s safe,” Lee said. “I’m all pro teaching and, you know, pro the district, but I got to take care of me, too.”

Lee said a lack of clear safety protocols played into his decision to stay home. For example, he said it was unclear what the district’s policy would be on masks and whether teachers could require students to wear them.

Jennings said Superintendent Ann Levett’s schedule Thursday and Friday did not allow her to respond to a request for comment.

Case rates rise

Chatham County’s two-week average infection rate is 224 cases per every 100,000 residents. The Georgia Department of Health defines high levels of transmission as a two-week average of 100 or more cases of COVID-19 per every 100,000 residents. The state two-week average is 218 cases per 100,000 residents.

The number of cases among the school-age population is high but decreasing in Chatham County, according to a Sept. 17 DPH surveillance report. The two-week average for ages 5-17 in was 195 cases per 100,000. 

“The school board, I think, is being pressured to reopen, you know, before it’s time,” Lee said, adding that parents have been outspoken in recent school board meetings. 

Savannah-Chatham school board President Joe Buck said he doesn’t feel any undue pressure because “being on a school board is just pressure in of itself.”

“When we started all virtual, for some students that worked out beautifully,” Buck said. “For other students and parents, that was not what they wanted. So they’ve been pushing, as parents have the right to do, to get us back in school.”

Earlier this year, Lee, who has been teaching in the district’s schools for the past decade, was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp to serve on one of the state’s boards focused on reopening schools. 

“The plans that our district has made is heads and tails above all the stuff that I saw on the state level,” Lee said. 

Students who opt to attend classes at school will only do so for two days a week under the district’s proposed hybrid model for instruction. Schools will close each Wednesday for deep cleaning while the students are in virtual school.

Depending on how strictly precautions are enforced and how large classes are, hybrid models present “some to medium risk” of transmission,” according to the Centers for Disease Control. The lowest risk model is to continue virtual learning.

“We all kind of knew that we would end up going to a hybrid, eventually, when the numbers came down, but, you know, as of last week. …  we were still in the red,” Lee said.

The Chatham Association of Educators in Savannah declined comment for this story. 

Guidelines for returns depend on data

In June, the Georgia Department of Education released guidance for reopening schools that included information about how transmission levels would determine whether classes continued in-person, online or a blend of both. 

“There was very clear data for the numbers of when it was safe to return and that very clear number was less than 100 cases per 100,000 population in the previous two weeks,” said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. “Systems are reopening with these very high numbers because the state department changed the guidance.”

The updated version of the guidance, posted at the end of July, excludes the transmission levels as a factor. In its place is a new requirement for school districts to report to the Georgia Department of Health employees and students who are absent because they contracted COVID-19 or were sent home upon showing symptoms of the virus.

“It very much focused on dealing with what they seem to consider inevitable cases rather than focusing on preventing the need for those cases,” Morgan said. “It is not acceptable for any student educator, or any of their family members to pass away because we rushed a return to school building.”

Meghan Frick, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Education, said updates to that guidance over the summer were made at the request of the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Nancy Nydam, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Public Health, said the plan disseminated in June was a draft and was not intended for wide distribution.

“Upon review and discussions, it didn’t make sense to use county-level transmission data because it would potentially impact all schools in a county when it should not,” Nydam said in an email to The Current. “For example, in a county the size of Fulton, what is happening in Alpharetta, may not be the same as what’s happening in Hapeville. It would make no sense for schools in Hapeville to consider closing due to widespread community transmission in Alpharetta.”

The Current requested COVID-19 count logs the health department receives weekly from school districts but did not receive them as they are deemed confidential records.

“Our policy, to this point, has been to leave it to schools to release information on positive cases which, in turn, would help determine transmission rates,” Sally Silbermann, public information officer for DPH Coastal Health District, said in an email to The Current. 

Transparency optional

While some school districts opted not to report cases to the public, others appear more transparent. 

Bryan County Schools has posted weekly COVID-19 updates online since it opened for in-person classes Aug. 17. Since then, 15 students and five teachers have tested positive. About 90 students have had to quarantine after having close contact with someone who tested positive. About 70 percent of the district’s 10,000 students are attending in-person classes. 

Bryan County as a whole recently reported a two-week average of 314 cases per 100,000 residents. That’s more than three times the baseline for “high risk” transmission. 

What’s more, the latest DPH surveillance report indicates cases are high and rising among ages 5-17. The county’s two-week average for that age group was 108 cases per 100,000.

Charlton County

Charlton County Schools has 1,656 students enrolled and posts weekly COVID-19 updates on its website. 

According to the updates since in-person classes began Aug. 10, a total of nine students have tested positive for COVID-19 and 87 students have had to quarantine after close contact. Two teachers tested positive, two staff members had suspected cases.

The two-week average for the county’s population of people ages 5-17 in was 376 cases per 100,000, according to a Sept. 17 DPH Surveillance report. That’s well above the county’s latest two-week average of 216 cases per 100,000 residents.

Even so, the district’s last weekly COVID-19 update states there were no cases or exposures among staff or students. 

Morgan said she has heard from educators in school districts across the state who are concerned about the accuracy of the COVID-19 stats schools are reporting to communities. Morgan said she spoke with one Coastal Georgia principal who was home sick with COVID-19, “but the report for her school says no cases.”

“It’s only by word of mouth that we know what’s actually happening,” she said, adding that she’s heard from teachers at schools that are reporting numbers but inaccurate ones.

Liberty County

Liberty County School System, roughly the same size as Bryan County Schools, resumed in-person classes Monday for some grade levels. 

Cathy Lane, communications coordinator for Liberty schools, said roughly 40% of all students opted for online learning. 

“Some teachers are teaching in the classroom as well as the kids virtually,” she said. 

Liberty County had a two-week average of 162 cases per 100,000 residents. The school district has not yet posted information about school-related cases or transmissions. The DPH surveillance report for the county’s school-age population indicates fewer than five cases.

McIntosh County

McIntosh County resumed in-person classes Aug. 24. The district’s 1,250 students decided between in-person and virtual classes in July. There is no public data on school-related cases or transmissions.

McIntosh County had a two-week average of 144 cases per 100,000 residents, according to the health department. The DPH surveillance report for the county’s school-age population indicates fewer than five cases.

Glynn County

Glynn County Schools was set to resume Aug. 11 but the school board voted in late July to delay opening until Aug. 20. A mandatory mask requirement went into effect Aug. 12 and applies to everyone on school property.

About 75% of its 12,760 students opted to return to classrooms, according to an email from Brittany Tate, the district’s public relations specialist. 

“All of our teachers are teaching in their classrooms – whether their students are in-person or virtual – as we are not currently authorizing work from home for staff,” Tate said.

Glynn County had a two-week average of 237 cases per 100,000 residents, according to the health department. The latest DPH surveillance report indicates transmission among the county’s school-age population is high but decreasing. Glynn County’s two-week average for ages 5-17 was 275 cases per 100,000.

Glynn Schools posts daily COVID-19 reports on its website. The reports provide more detail than others.

“We knew this school year would pose many new challenges for our families and we wanted to make sure that our families and stakeholders could access the information that they needed when they needed it,” Tate said.

Since the beginning of the school year, according to the district reports, a total of 67 students and 35 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, 544 students and 25 staff members had to quarantine as a result of direct exposure at school. 

Camden County

Camden County Schools, which has about 9,000 students, started the school year Aug. 4 with in-person and virtual classes. 

Camden County kindergarten students don masks with their costumes for “Community Helper Dress Up Day” on Sept. 10. (Camden County Schools)

Up until Aug. 17, the district had not made face masks mandatory in classrooms. The mask requirement was announced as Camden County was designated one of the state’s COVID-19 hotspots. 

The district does not post its COVID-19 case log information online.

Camden County’s two-week average for ages 5-17 was 162 cases per 100,000, according to the latest surveillance report. The countywide two-week average was 271 cases per 100,000.

This weekend, the fine arts department plans to put on a performance of “The Importance of Being Earnest” at Camden County High School, where “patrons are asked to wear masks at the theatre, and to practice social distancing.”

Camden MIddle School softball players removed their masks for the photo, according to the school’s Facebook post.

Laura Corley is an investigative reporter who has covered public safety and government and education in her home state of Georgia since 2014. At The (Macon) Telegraph, Laura used open records requests...