This post originally appeared on The Atlanta Voice

By Madeline Thigpen

Thousands of students across the Metro-Atlanta area headed back to school this week for the first time since the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine became widely available to individuals aged 12 and over.

Local districts have spent the summer months preparing schools for students to return and laying out social distancing plans to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Fully virtual learning remains an option through local school districts or the Georgia Dept. of Education. However, in some cases the majority of families opted for in-person learning.

For example, just 3,400 of Gwinnett County Public School’s over 180,000 thousand students chose to remain in virtual learning for the 2021-2022 school year.

Kristy Ashley, a parent to a kindergartener in the Atlanta Public Schools, said she and her husband decided to send their son back to in-person learning in the spring.

“As busy working parents, virtual learning for a 5-year-old child was not easy,” Ashley said.

Still, as the number of cases continues to surge, Ashley said she is nervous for her son, who is ineligible for the vaccine.

“Thankfully his school district is mandating masks for all students and staff while inside the building, so that brings some comfort. But I’m certainly not 100 percent at ease,” Ashley said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced July 27 that they recommend universal mask-wearing in schools regardless of a person’s vaccination status.

Atlanta Public Schools, Clayton, DeKalb, Gwinnett County Schools and City Schools of Decatur all require face masks in school buildings and on school buses. Fulton County Schools have mandated masks on school buses but made them optional in school buildings.

Cobb County is the only school district in metro Atlanta that is entirely mask optional. 

“I am super nervous about sending my daughter back to school because Fulton County is not requiring the children to wear masks or be vaccinated,” Tamaress Martinez told the Atlanta Voice.

Martinez said she is nervous because her daughter has a minor heart condition. Ultimately she decided that in-person learning would be best for her daughter, a fully vaccinated high schooler.

“I am happy for her to be back in school amongst her peers. She learns so much better in the classroom,” Martinez said.

The CDC recommends all schools use COVID transmission prevention strategies. Specifically correct mask-wearing, physical distancing and screening testing. About half of all K-12 students are ineligible for the vaccine and therefore much more likely to contract and transmit the virus. However, the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have said that in-person learning is best for students.

The impact on the academic, social and developmental welfare of students of all ages has been a concern throughout the pandemic. The opportunity to go back to school in person has been exciting for many students.

“Personally, I enjoy it, but it’s an odd feeling. It doesn’t feel like a true school experience. You can’t really interact as much with each other due to social distancing, conversations are harder because of masks,” Kayla, 16, a junior in Clayton County Public Schools said.

She added that even though they are staying hopeful, she and her classmates have a feeling they won’t be having classes in school buildings for long.

One parent of a fully vaccinated high schooler in the DeKalb County School District said sending her son back to school was a necessary evil.

“We all must make the best of the situation and do what we feel is best for our own children, and for me, he needed to be around people,” Maeico Amis said.

Many parents in Amis’ situation have felt the same way, even as COVID cases are surging as the Delta variant has proliferated in the Atlanta metro area.

Every school district in the area is planning to keep its doors open as long as there isn’t another lockdown.

One thing is clear, from students to teachers and parents everyone wants to keep the schools open and safe for learning.