Opinion: On the first day of school, the teacher cried

Tracy woke up early on Monday, August 3, the first day of school at Sequoyah High in Cherokee County. But she never left the house. Instead she drank her coffee alone and worried about the other teachers. And she cried.

“We all just want to do our jobs,” she told me on the phone later that week. “We want to be alive to do them.”

Tracy is 53, with a minor heart ailment and a more serious lung condition. Her father smoked in the home when she was a child, leaving her vulnerable to respiratory viruses. In 2014, a bad case of the flu became pneumonia and put her in the hospital. Now her in-laws live with her. Both are in their 70s. Her mother-in-law has diabetes and high blood pressure; her father-in-law has Parkinson’s Disease and takes immunosuppressive drugs for his rheumatoid arthritis. All that to say why Tracy could not afford to bring home the coronavirus.

As Georgia’s infection rate
soared in July, many districts chose not to physically re-open schools in August. But in Cherokee County, an upscale area of about
250,000 in the green hills between Atlanta and the Appalachian Mountains, parents wanted a choice. According to district spokeswoman Barbara Jacoby, the county gave it to them. Students could learn digitally from home or in person at school. But teachers would have no such choice. Even if they were teaching virtual classes, they would have to do so from a school building. And students would
not be required to wear masks.

For Tracy, the risk was too great. She resigned and applied for early retirement. On the Friday before school started, she went to her empty classroom and prepared it for the teacher who would take her place. She hooked up the printer, arranged the tables and chairs, and said good-bye to Fred the skeleton.

Then she went home to worry and wait. She considered herself lucky. Although she would take a financial penalty for early retirement, she could stay home. Other teachers decided they could not. Some were single mothers. She couldn’t stop thinking about them.

The district’s first letter came home last Tuesday, the second day of school. At Sixes Elementary School in Canton, a
second-grader tested positive for Covid-19. The classroom would be temporarily closed. The teacher and 20 students would be quarantined for two weeks. On Wednesday two more positive tests were reported at two other schools. On Thursday, two more. By Friday, with a dozen positive tests across the district,
more than 250 people were under quarantine. It was all happening even faster than Tracy expected.

Viral loads, lines of defense, molecular warfare. Her work felt more relevant than ever, and she was not there to do it. She imagined the children in what used to be her classroom. About 30 of them, two at each table, pressed in close for 55 minutes. Young hearts and lungs. The air circulating.

I drove up to Sequoyah High School that afternoon and watched from the parking lot as the school day ended. A breath of wind, a touch of rain. Ford and Chevrolet in the traffic circle. Three students walked to the flagpole and lowered the flags. By Tuesday night, with nearly 60 positive tests in the Cherokee County system, more than
900 people would be under quarantine.
Etowah High School would be forced to close.

Other schools would remain open. People would do what they wanted. These choices would have consequences, for themselves and for others, and some of those consequences would be shattering and irreversible. At Sequoyah, the children dispersed. It was just another afternoon outside another high school in a nation grappling with the meaning of freedom. A girl drove off in a Jeep Liberty. The players got ready for football practice.

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