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'This is not ok': US schools crowded on first day back amid coronavirus crisis

Teachers and students ordered back to school in the US state of Georgia, where the novel coronavirus remains widespread, say they are facing a scary situation which some students have turned into a “joke”.

Schools in Paulding County, outside the city of Atlanta, were back in the classroom this week despite coronavirus cases reported among students and staff.

On the first day back, Year 10 student Hannah Watters shared a photo on social media that has since gone viral. But behind the widely-shared image, a potentially deadly situation is unfolding which the school has been accused of trying to “sweep under the rug”.

Speaking to Yahoo News Australia, Hannah said a lack of meaningful precautions and only a small amount of mask wearing among students has left her feeling vulnerable.

“I feel very unsafe going back to school with the coronavirus. Especially with my school taking little precautions,” she said.

Paulding County school in Atlanta returning to classes on Monday. Source: Hannah Watters
The 30,000-student suburban Paulding County school district in suburban Atlanta resumed classes on Monday.. Source: Hannah Watters

Since returning on Monday (local time) she has posted a handful of photos and a video showing packed corridors bustling with students, raising concerns about the lack of any social distancing.

“Day two at North Paulding High School. It is just as bad. We were stopped because it was jammed,” she wrote. “This is not ok.”

The school district says it is following state guidelines for reopening the school, with Paulding County Superintendent Brian Ottot telling CBS in an email that students need longer than a few minutes in the hall to catch the virus from others.

However, Hannah has since been reprimanded by the school for taking the images and posting them online.

“The policies I broke stated that I used my phone in the hallway without permission, used my phone for social media, and posting pictures of minors without consent,” she said.

Despite using her phone in such a manner previously, she says she has never been cautioned for it.

“I do feel like Paulding is trying to sweep this under the rug,” she told Yahoo News Australia.

“At about 1pm at school today (Wednesday, local time) our principal made a statement saying that ‘if any student tries to take photos or videos and post them there will be consequences’.”

Students seen inn the hallways between classes as school returns in the state. Source: Supplied
Students seen inn the hallways between classes as school returns in the state. Source: Supplied

Students test positive day before school goes back

The day before classroom teaching was due to commence, the principal sent a letter to parents informing them that a number of students on the school’s football team had tested positive for COVID-19.

Multiple teachers at the school told Buzzfeed News US there are also positive tests among school staff, including a staff member who came into contact with most teachers while exhibiting symptoms last week.

According to state data compiled by Covid Act Now, the infection rate in Georgia remains above 1 per cent, meaning the virus continues to slowly spread through the community, while nearly 13 per cent of coronavirus tests in the state return a positive result.

Georgia hit a new weekly high for COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday (local time) having averaged 51 confirmed deaths from the respiratory illness over the seven days prior.

While the school is taking some precautions, such as splitting the time when classes are let out, it is not enforcing mask wearing, with a slim majority of students opting not to wear them, Hannah says.

“Most of the population of ‘anti maskers’ have made the coronavirus somewhat of a joke,” she said.

“They have also made the situation I’m in a joke.”

Schools in the district are seeking to provide online learning options. But of the 31,000 students, more than 20,000 have signed up for in-person learning, local station WSB-TV reported.

Rumours that have been reported online claim students face suspension or even expulsion for not attending classes.

“The expulsion rule is just a rumour and has not been confirmed,” Hannah told Yahoo News Australia.

“There is a waiting list for online learning, and I know I don’t learn well online. Last semester online school was hard and confusing for everybody.

“I just want in-person schooling to be safe.”

She is not the only one, with a student who didn’t want to be named for fear of reprisal from the school, telling Buzzfeed he was paranoid about walking the halls.

“It’s the hallway situation that has me most paranoid,” he said. “There’s a lot of people in the hallways, and you can’t do nothing about it, so it’s scary.”

The school has been contacted for comment.

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