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COVID-19 Cases Among Georgia's School-Age Children Are At A Record High

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A month after school started in Georgia, COVID cases among school-age kids are now at an all-time high. Governor Brian Kemp has left mask rules up to local districts, and only about half of the state's students attend school under a mask mandate. And now thousands are out of class because of quarantines. Grant Blankenship of Georgia Public Broadcasting reports.

GRANT BLANKENSHIP, BYLINE: Macon County schools started face-to-face, but without mask rules. Within a week, surging COVID cases sent the 1,100-student district online. Siblings Quinyonna Tooks and Charles Knott don't have good internet at home, so they're working at the single table in the small library in the town of Oglethorpe. They're using library voices, seated next to the children's section.

QUINYONNA TOOKS: (Whispering) 1.889.

BLANKENSHIP: For Quinyonna, it's the periodic table of elements today.

QUINYONNA: And we have to tell the atomic number, the electrons and the neutrons.

BLANKENSHIP: The work is largely self-guided - not a problem for Quinyonna, but Charles is not a fan.

CHARLES KNOTT: I don't like it. In school is better for me where I'm focused and there with the teachers.

CHARLES: If Quinyonna does have a problem, it's being new to Macon County High School.

QUINYONNA: But it is kind of hard because I didn't really actually get to meet anyone. But I'm hoping that when we go back, I get to make new friends.

BLANKENSHIP: Dozens of small school systems have paused face-to-face instruction. Others are quarantining kids in smaller cohorts. But at least one south Georgia district has gone without any teaching, virtual or otherwise, for two weeks. In Jones County, Jennifer Morgan Flory wants to see a mask mandate after her experience with her son, Iain.

JENNIFER MORGAN FLORY: Saturday, on the way home from the hospital, he threw up.

BLANKENSHIP: That was on the way back from the pediatric emergency room in nearby Macon. That meant a second ER visit the next day.

FLORY: So they gave him an IV, which in and of itself was kind of traumatic.

BLANKENSHIP: Iain was dehydrated. He'd lost weight.

FLORY: He's a little guy. He doesn't have much of a belly. You know, he doesn't have that much to lose.

BLANKENSHIP: During the second ER trip, he tested positive for COVID. That was despite the family's best efforts. Flory says she and her husband are fully vaccinated. The whole family still masks in public. But they couldn't control the environment in Jones County schools. Not until the day after Iain's two trips to the hospital did the district begin a three-week pilot in mandated masking. Flory sees a lesson in that.

FLORY: We've learned that people are not going to do the things that they should do in many cases. They're not going to wear masks if they're not required to wear masks.

BLANKENSHIP: Iain is recovering at home, but has since made a third ER trip.

CURTIS JONES: So let me show you our numbers.

BLANKENSHIP: Curtis Jones is superintendent of Bibb County schools in Macon. He hasn't left masking to chance - instead, mandating it for students, staff and faculty since the first day of the school year, as advised by the CDC. And so...

JONES: If students are a close contact, if we have them inside school, they don't have symptoms and they're wearing masks, they can stay in school.

BLANKENSHIP: That's flexibility other school districts without mask mandates may not have.

JONES: Instead of just looking at it as one-size-fits-all, we're looking at it now by classroom, by grade level, by school.

BLANKENSHIP: So he can quarantine a single classroom rather than a whole school - important as he tries to make up for learning loss from last year.

JONES: I think we're trying to keep them here and keep them learning. I'm trying to be strategic.

BLANKENSHIP: But as surgical as Jones' approach may seem, the superintendent will soon send all Bibb County schools online for two weeks.

For NPR News, I'm Grant Blankenship in Macon, Ga.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNWED SAILOR'S "HAZE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.