Images of student crowds raise questions in Georgia schools

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In this photo posted on Twitter, students crowd a hallway, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, at North Paulding High School in Dallas, Ga. The 30,000-student suburban Paulding County school district in suburban Atlanta resumed classes Monday with 70% of students returning for in-person classes five days a week, days after the principal at North Paulding announced some members of the football team had tested positive for COVID-19. The district says it is encouraging mask use, but isn't requiring it. (Twitter via AP)

ATLANTA – Two suburban Atlanta school districts that began in-person classes Monday with mask-optional policies face more questions about COVID-19 safety protocols after on-campus pictures showed students packed shoulder-to-shoulder.

In Cherokee County, dozens of seniors gathered at two of the district's six high schools to take traditional first-day-of-school senior photos, with students squeezing together in black outfits. No one in pictures at Sequoyah High School in Hickory Flat or Etowah High School in Woodstock wore a mask.

In Paulding County, student pictures taken Monday and Tuesday show crowded hallways at North Paulding High School in Dallas. Fewer than half of the students shown are wearing masks.

Critics widely derided the pictures on social media, although some residents of the counties voiced support.

Georgia's largest school district, Gwinnett County, said Tuesday it hopes to make a phased return to face-to-face instruction after an all-remote start to classes. All students seeking in-person classes could be welcome by Sept. 8, in what Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks wrote is a “best case” scenario.

Georgia hit a new weekly high for COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, having averaged 51 confirmed deaths from the respiratory illness over the last seven days. Few die from the illness, and only a relatively small fraction become ill enough to be hospitalized.

Newly confirmed cases remain high, but have trended down over the last week, as has the share of positive tests. Both could indicate the current outbreak in Georgia has peaked. The number of people with COVID-19 in Georgia hospitals hit all time highs last week, but have fallen slightly.

Paulding County Superintendent Brian Ottot, in an email sent Tuesday, said pictures were accurate, but said the district is following state guidelines and that students need longer than a few minutes in the hall to catch the virus from others.