COVID-19 cases see marked increase in Dalton Public Schools

File/Daily Citizen-News

Drew Snyder, foreground, and Conrad Coleman, both eighth-graders at Dalton Middle School, wear masks while casting votes for president in the school's mock election Nov. 3. Most of the COVID-19 cases and quarantines in Dalton Public Schools continue to be due to community spread, due to mitigation procedures in schools such as a mask mandate, Mendy Woods, Dalton Public Schools' chief human resources officer, explained.  

Dalton Public Schools recorded 75 positive test results for COVID-19 for the week that ended Friday among students and staff, a new high.

However, that was "expected," because that was the first week back from winter break, a time when many traveled and/or spent time in large groups, both behaviors that increase the risk of COVID-19 exposure, said Mendy Woods, Dalton Public Schools' chief human resources officer. "We'll see what (this) next week brings."

There were 52 student positive cases and 23 staff positive cases, according to the school system's website. For Dec. 14-18, there were 20 student positive cases and six staff positive cases.

Most of the cases and quarantines continue to be due to community spread, rather than attributable to spread within schools, Woods said. For example, of the 200-plus total positive tests recorded by students and staff from the start of the school year Aug. 31 until the holiday break last month, more than 85% were due to community spread.

"Our nurses do the contact tracing, and the vast majority of exposures come outside the school setting," Steve Loughridge, superintendent of Murray County Schools, explained last month. "Much more often than not, it's at another event, but there's no way we can control that."

As has been the case in Dalton Public Schools and Murray County Schools, most positive cases for Whitfield County Schools students and staff have been traced to activities outside of the school setting, Superintendent Judy Gilreath said last month. Then, “they bring it into” schools.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Whitfield County had a total of 12,060 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 134 deaths and five probable deaths, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. Whitfield County's rate of 11,522 cases per 100,000 residents ranked second among Georgia's 159 counties, behind Chattahoochee, and Whitfield County has seen 1,477 new cases during the past two weeks.

Students are still allowed to opt for complete virtual learning this academic year, although only 1,538 of Dalton Public Schools' 7,800 students are currently engaged in remote education, said Superintendent Tim Scott. That's less than 20% of the total student body, down from nearly 40% at the start of this academic year.

While elementary schools are conducting in-person instruction five days a week, grades 6-12 continue to have virtual Wednesdays, Scott said. That will continue at least through the middle of next month, "and then we'll look at it again."

Dalton Public Schools continues to consult regularly with Hamilton Health Care System and the North Georgia Health District, Scott said. The school system continues to have a decontamination spray used in all of its facilities every 90 days to kill COVID-19 on surfaces, with the next application slated for Feb. 27.

The effort to install heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) ionization in all schools is nearing completion, said Rusty Lount, the system's director of operations. Dalton High School, Dalton Public Schools auxiliary buildings and Roan School all received the upgrade during the past couple of months, while approximately a third of the job remains at Park Creek School, and Dalton Middle School still needs the treatment, as does Blue Ridge School.

Most of the work can be completed while school is in session, so "we should be able to finish fairly quickly," Lount said. Ionization work should be finished in all of the system's schools "by the end of February."

Since Lount joined Dalton Public Schools eight years ago, he's made a point of having ionization air cleaners installed on HVAC units at the schools where his department performs renovations, he explained in August. Among other benefits, they improve air quality, eliminate foul odors and are easier on air filters, but this technology is also ideal for stopping COVID-19.

"The technology is so much better than it used to be," too, he said Monday. "This is good, quality stuff."

And even when the pandemic is in the rearview mirror, these upgrades will still benefit the school system, as improved air flow can mitigate other viral outbreaks in buildings, such as the seasonal flu, he said: "We've had good air quality, but now it's outstanding."

Dalton Public Schools staff members could start receiving COVID-19 vaccinations in "four to six weeks," Woods said. Educators are in Tier 1B, "the next group to be offered," and Dalton Public Schools officials hope to make its school buildings vaccination sites, if that can be arranged with health care professionals.

Currently, the vaccine is available locally to those in Tier 1A+, which includes health care workers, residents and staff of long-term care facilities, adults ages 65 and over and their caregivers, and first responders such as law enforcement personnel and firefighters, according to the North Georgia Health District, which includes Whitfield and Murray counties. Those eligible are asked to call (888) 881-1474 to make an appointment. The hotline operates Monday through Friday from 8:15 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

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