MARIETTA — Superintendent Grant Rivera was asked why he didn’t cancel sports when data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed students playing them were at higher risk of encountering COVID-19.

“The reality is this was the kids’ outlet for normalcy,” Rivera told the Marietta business community Wednesday morning. He was invited by the Cobb Chamber of Commerce’s Marietta Area Council to give an update on the district’s coronavirus response. There, he shared new details about the spread of the virus in schools.

The school district and the CDC found students engaged in extracurricular activities were at higher risk of transmitting the virus than they were in classrooms, the superintendent said.

In December and January, Rivera said the CDC found 15 of 17 clusters of COVID-19 cases at Marietta High School were linked to extracurricular activities.

He recalled meeting a young student athlete who this year signed a commitment with Syracuse University.

“I didn’t feel like it was my place to take that away from him,” he said.

Rivera also shared why he decided not to go with a hybrid in-person model, in which students are in person half the week and learn remotely the other half. Marietta Schools is open to students in-person Monday through Thursday.

Some elementary schools have as many as 90% of their students back in the classroom, making it impossible to space children six feet apart. Many students are seated about three feet apart, with plastic partitions between desks.

Still, Rivera believes the classroom, with the partitions and other safety measures, is a lower risk than the uncertainty children encounter outside of school. He said when children aren’t in school, parents have to find childcare, and kids often gather without social distancing.

“When those kids go out in the community, the parents are having them all congregate together on the playground or congregate together in somebody’s home because they’ve got to figure out childcare,” he said. “There are no easy answers.”

In response to a question about student performance and learning loss, Rivera said there are still students in the district who have gone “off the grid.”

“We have 50 kids we have not been able to track since March,” he said.

Among students learning virtually, some are thriving and others are struggling. Rivera said those students need educators to help engage them.

“I think when I see a kid with a zero, I should hold the mirror up to ourselves and say, what are we not doing to get that child connected?” he said. “If there’s something that you intrinsically are motivated by, you’re going to lean in. And (if) you’re not, you’re going to lean out. And that’s no different for a little body or a big body, a child or an adult.”

He also recapped much of the district’s response to the pandemic: delivering four million meals to students across the city since March; giving over 5,500 Chromebooks and over 1,500 Wi-Fi hot spots so students may continue to learn remotely; and, through the CDC, providing free COVID-19 testing with turnaround times within 24 hours, continuing free testing in January with Peachtree Immediate Care.

Natalie Rutledge, executive director of Communities in Schools, was among those in attendance. She appreciated the update about the school system, which the nonprofit partners with to serve Marietta Middle School students.

“One of the first barriers to kids going back to school is feeling safe...So I thought it was really great to hear the incredible efforts from Grant and the CDC, about how safety has been the number one priority for Marietta, and getting kids the essential things they need,” she said. “It’s more about showing kids that you care, and they’ve done a great job of that.”

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