Editorial: In the face of coronavirus, local school systems made the right decision to close

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On Wednesday, the World Health Organization named the new coronavirus (COVID-19) a pandemic.

On Friday afternoon, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency due to the coronavirus. As of Saturday afternoon, there were 2,430 cases of COVID-19 in the country across 49 states, Washington, D.C., and U.S. territories. Fifty people in the United States have died from COVID-19.

On Saturday morning, Gov. Brian Kemp declared a public health state of emergency as the number of COVID-19 cases in Georgia climbed to 64 — which is the state's largest increase in a 24-hour span. The state reported its first COVID-19 death on Thursday. So far, no one in Dalton or Whitfield and Murray counties has tested positive for COVID-19.

On Monday, more than 1.2 million of the state's 1.8 million public school students will be at home as districts across the state have canceled school as concerns about the coronavirus mount.

Some 85 school systems will shut their doors for one to two weeks including those in Bartow, Calhoun, Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade, Dalton, Fannin, Floyd, Gilmer, Gordon, Murray, Pickens, Rome, Walker and Whitfield. Christian Heritage School, a private school in Dalton, has also canceled school for two weeks.

During a press conference on Thursday, Kemp recommended that school systems statewide close for two weeks to help deal with the coronavirus. It was not an order. Kemp allowed each school system to make the call whether to remain open or close.

As we watch school systems around the country — and next door to us — shut their doors, we believe our local superintendents made the right call to suspend classes immediately. Christian Heritage, Dalton and Whitfield are all closed for two weeks. With spring break falling March 30-April 3, that means students and staff, for the most part, will be out for three weeks. School work will be done online or in packets sent home with students Christian Heritage, Dalton and Whitfield have also suspended all sports, after-school events, field trips and extracurricular activities for at least two weeks.

We acknowledge the gut-wrenching decision superintendents grapple with in deciding whether they should close their schools. When there is inclement weather, from snow to ice to flooding to severe storms, they make decisions with the safety of students and staff foremost on their minds. We never criticize them for closing schools.

The CDC has not directed school systems to close but has offered many guidelines.

"Schools, working together with local health departments, have an important role in slowing the spread of diseases to help ensure students have safe and healthy learning environments," according to the CDC's website. "Schools serve students, staff and visitors from throughout the community. All of these people may have close contact in the school setting, often sharing spaces, equipment and supplies."

The CDC reports the coronavirus is thought to be transferred "between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet)" and "through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes."

To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, medical experts have recommended people limit contact with large groups and practice social distancing. Look around the world as countries have quarantined millions of its citizens. Look around our country as games and seasons for professional, college and amateur sports have been nixed.

Locally, we have seen a slew of events postponed or canceled. The Dalton Convention Center is closed for a week. The Creative Arts Guild's annual Spring for the Arts event scheduled for this week has been delayed. City and county recreation leagues have been shut down. The Dalton-Whitfield County Public Library is shuttered. This morning, pews at many area churches will be empty as pastors have canceled services.

The entire community must do everything we can to slow the spread of this disease and lower its transmission rate. Closing schools in Dalton and Whitfield County where thousands congregate daily — students, faculty, staff, bus drivers, school resource officers, parents, volunteers, delivery workers, maintenance crews, etc. — is the prudent decision.

These are strange, unprecedented times for us all. The coronavirus situation is quickly evolving, changing seemingly by the hour. Fear of the unknown creeps into our thoughts daily.

We must not panic. We must prepare. We must work together.

That includes temporarily closing our schools.

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