As the Delta variant quickly spreads, only 18 percent of eligible public school students in the city are vaccinated against Covid-19.,
School Is Back in Session in Atlanta. Teachers and Families Are Wary.
As the Delta variant quickly spreads, only 18 percent of eligible public school students in the city are vaccinated against Covid-19.
High school dismissal in Atlanta on Thursday. The city’s public schools, which serve about 52,000 students, are among the earliest in the country to open.Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times
ATLANTA — When the Atlanta Public Schools reopened on Thursday, students and teachers anticipated — finally — something like a return to normalcy. Schools, now open for in-person classes five days a week, greeted students with balloons. The kindergartners at Morningside Elementary wore brightly colored crowns to celebrate.
But even on the first day, families and school employees were already bracing for the possibility of things going awry.
The reopening comes amid a resurgence of coronavirus cases across the state. And while the district is requiring its staff and students to wear masks and to social distance, the rate of vaccinations among eligible students is just 18 percent, making disruptive outbreaks of illness a significant worry.
“For us to be going back during this time is a very bad idea,” said Beverly Rice, who teaches entrepreneurship and writing at Maynard Holbrook Jackson High School.
“I am going back because I know the students need me, but I am scared for all of us.”
Atlanta’s schools, which serve about 52,000 students, are among the earliest in the country to open, and they provide a glimpse at the immediate future facing other big-city districts. Los Angeles opens its public schools on Aug. 16, Chicago on Aug. 30, and Philadelphia on Aug. 31. In Atlanta, public health advocates are pushing hard to get more teenagers and their parents inoculated, but their message has not gained widespread acceptance. Among the school staff, the vaccination rate is about 58 percent.
At one local charter school, which reopened last week, trouble with the virus has already emerged. Charles R. Drew Charter School has had to quarantine some 278 students, faculty and staff since reopening.
Drew had tested 1,900 students in the week before school started; masks were required, as were social distancing and regular temperature checks. But as of Thursday afternoon, 19 students and seven staff members had tested positive for the virus.
Peter McKnight, the head of school, said that mitigation efforts kept things from being far worse, but he hopes that parents, teachers and leaders at other schools can learn from his school’s experience.
Atlanta public school officials, who are requiring most students to return to in-person learning, say they are combating broad distrust of the medical system, rooted partly in the historical mistreatment of Black people and other people of color. Last spring, said Lisa Herring, the district’s superintendent, a vast majority of families that did not send their children to in-person classes were Black and Latino. Many of those same families are now resisting vaccines.
“What seems to be a trend is the parents,” said Dr. Michelle Nichols, the associate dean for clinical affairs at Morehouse College and the medical director of the university’s community vaccination program. “If you look at that age, a lot of the parents are in their late 20s, early 30s, and they aren’t vaccinated either, so if the parents aren’t vaccinated, they don’t want to get their children vaccinated.“
A back-to-school event in Clarkston, Ga., on Tuesday. The Community Organized Relief Effort was on site offering coronavirus vaccines.Credit…Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times
The percentage of eligible students — 18 percent of those 12 or older — who are fully vaccinated in Atlanta public schools, where the student body is largely Black, is significantly lower than in some other U.S. cities.
In Washington, the percentage of fully vaccinated children between ages 12 and 15 is 26.7 percent, and 29.1 percent for 16- and 17-year-olds. In Los Angeles County, 48.4 percent of children between 12 and 15 have gotten at least one dose; nearly 60 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds have done so. Nationally, 29.6 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds are fully vaccinated, as are 40 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds.
Some school districts defy U.S. governors on mask rules.Boston’s mayor draws sharp criticism for condemning so-called vaccine passports.Virginia will require state workers to be vaccinated or get tested.
Partage Cadette, 15, said she had not been vaccinated because her parents were skeptical about the vaccines, and she trusted that they were right.
“My parents and I believe the vaccines aren’t good, that they are too new, they were created too quickly and they aren’t approved by the F.D.A.,” said Partage, who attends the Paideia School, a private school in Atlanta.
Partage has heard of people getting the coronavirus even after being vaccinated, and though she understands those so-called breakthrough infections are rare, she would rather avoid the shots. “I’d rather keep my mask on and keep to myself at school.”
The urgent vaccination push comes at a precarious moment for Georgia. Thirty-nine percent of residents are fully vaccinated — one of the lowest rates in the country — and the state is averaging nearly 4,000 new cases a day, its highest since February. Hospitalizations have risen to 2,500 per day, the highest since March 1, according to New York Times data.
Wykeisha Howe, who has four children enrolled in Atlanta public schools, intends to keep them home this semester because she is worried about the speed at which the Delta variant is spreading. One of her sons, at 13, is old enough for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. But he has autism, and despite guidance from the Autism Society and other medical professionals encouraging autistic adolescents to get vaccinated, she does not believe it is safe.
Understand the State of Vaccine Mandates in the U.S.
College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated for Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get the Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force. In N.Y.C., workers in city-run hospitals and health clinics will be required to get vaccinated or else get tested on a weekly basis.Federal employees. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees must be vaccinated against the coronavirus or be forced to submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel. State workers in New York will face similar restrictions.Can your employer require a vaccine? Companies can require workers entering the workplace to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to recent U.S. government guidance.
Ms. Rice, the high school teacher, said she tried to encourage students to get vaccinated in conversations during summer school but did not persuade many of them.
Larger efforts are underway. The Atlanta school system offered vaccines to families and employees at a back-to-school event last week. And starting next week the district will offer shots to staff members and eligible students at school.
The reopening comes amid a resurgence of coronavirus cases across the state.Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times
On Tuesday evening, the Community Organized Relief Effort, which administers vaccines in underserved communities across Georgia, was at a back-to-school event in Milam Park in the Atlanta suburb of Clarkston.
Ann Lee, the organization’s co-founder and chief executive, said her organization received all kinds of questions, suggesting that many people were not necessarily against being vaccinated but did not have all the answers they wanted.
“It’s not just anti-vax or pro-vax,” she said. “It’s a group of people who don’t have access to information or accurate information. We are bombarded with so many opinions and ideas, and people don’t know who to trust.”
Still, some who have long resisted vaccines — the Food and Drug Administration has authorized three for emergency use — are now coming around. Aurelia Henderson, a substitute teacher in Atlanta, was not planning to get vaccinated, but when she saw Ms. Lee’s organization in the park, she figured it was a sign from God.
“I have four beautiful grandbabies and could not in good conscience not take the vaccine anymore,” she said.
For months Ms. Henderson, 57, had been skittish.
She worried about the contradictory information she had heard about breakthrough infections and the lack of federal approval. A lifelong Democrat, she said that when President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris got their shots, she considered getting one, too, but still was not convinced. When former President Donald J. Trump urged his supporters to get vaccinated in the spring, she decided against it entirely.
But this week, she became just nervous enough about the virus and the start of the school year to change her mind.
“I have been scared, terrified to go back, and I know that I have the lives of other people’s children in my hands and I take that seriously,” she said. “With this new strain things are going to be worse and the vaccine helps.”