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Editorial: Decaturish can step away from daily COVID reports, but we can’t change reality

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Editorial: Decaturish can step away from daily COVID reports, but we can’t change reality

Robert Mack wears a protective mask while he checks his cellphone on Sycamore Street in Downtown Decatur, April 26, 2020. When asked how he was getting along Mack quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt saying, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Photo by: Dean Hesse.

News is the first rough draft of history.

It’s an old adage in our business, but I’m always mindful of its implications. Someday, someone studying the pandemic will be looking through news archives and wondering how the CDC’s hometown weathered COVID-19. Did our community’s depth of knowledge and years of experience matter? Did we open schools faster, have less community spread or have fewer deaths?

The numbers of COVID-19 cases have consistently put DeKalb County in the top five counties in Georgia since the pandemic began. Perhaps there’s some moral victory in being No. 4 out of No. 5 right now, but I’ll skip the celebration.

Reporting the COVID-19 numbers every day was a conscious choice on my part. I didn’t do it to scare anyone, though admittedly COVID is a bit scary. I did it because I wanted the receipts in case the government tried to lie about it later. One of the most important jobs we have as journalists is documenting things because you never know when it’ll become relevant.

We shouldn’t let public officials lie to us and we shouldn’t lie to ourselves.

We’re racking up more than 100 deaths a day in Georgia. Every time I do a new COVID-19 report, that number hits me like a thump in the skull. If 100 people died in a fire or a terrorist bombing it would be national news for weeks. But the COVID death toll is now just another statistic we use to evaluate risk.

A few weeks ago, City Schools of Decatur allowed pre-k through fifth grade students to resume in-person learning. As expected, there were cases detected in the school community. Students and teachers were quarantined and the emails hit my inbox every time a letter about a new case went out to parents.

When someone passes along a news tip, there’s always a choice I have to make about whether it’s worth a story. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.

Until now, every time I received a tip about a new COVID case in Decatur’s schools, I chose to write a story about it. I wanted to keep a record, not only for posterity, but also for accountability. Sending your kids to school during a pandemic carries risks. It’s a risk to your kids, a risk to their teachers and a risk to yourself. What each of us has to determine is whether that risk is worth it. For some, the answer is easy. But for many of us, it is not.

Inevitably, parents in favor of the return to school idea pushed back on the daily reports. It won’t surprise you that people who weren’t in favor of reopening had the opposite reaction.

The daily numbers have become a Rorschach test. You can look at the more than 100 people dying a day and feel alarmed or feel comforted that deaths have plateaued. You can look at the more than a dozen reports of COVID-19 in schools and think this is as bad as it will ever get or fear the worst possible outcomes.

Recently, I’ve reconsidered whether it’s worth writing the daily stories that provide the fuel for these arguments. What are these stories adding to this discussion?

And since more than a few of you have misconstrued my personal opinions on the matter, allow me to set the record straight.

I don’t begrudge parents who want to send their children to school. I don’t begrudge teachers who are afraid for their health and safety.

I do think there are compelling arguments for sending kids back to school in a way that offers minimal risk to the general population. I don’t think it’s unreasonable or hysterical to wonder if the risk is worth it when so many Georgians are dying every day.

I have no earthly idea what I’m doing when it comes to covering the pandemic. Any journalist who tells you this has been easy is lying.  Some of us are doing better than others. I can’t speak for my peers, but in my journalism school we did not discuss covering years long pandemics at any length. I didn’t sign up for this. The parents with kids doing virtual school at home didn’t sign up for this. The teachers didn’t sign up for this.

No one signed up for this.

But here we are, trying to make it work.

I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know how I feel about sending my kid to school. It’s complicated.

When my son was born, he suffered a brain injury. For years, we lived with the constant fear that he would be behind his peers and unable to mature into a functioning adult. Thank God, all the worst fears did not come to pass. When we moved to our neighborhood, we moved close to a school within walking distance. I dreamed of holding my son’s hand on his way to his first day of Kindergarten. It would be a milestone moment, a sign that he’d come so far.

We didn’t get to make that walk this year. Instead, my son logged onto a computer and learned how to use Zoom. I hated it at first, but now I’m satisfied he’s receiving the best education he can receive under the circumstances. If you’re a parent in DeKalb County Schools, your mileage may vary.

But even though I’m satisfied, it still sucks. I still would rather have him in school.

And that’s OK. It’s OK to accept reality and hate it at the same time.

I’ve decided to publish a weekly update on the COVID statistics instead of a daily one. I’ll publish them on Wednesday afternoons. It will include the numbers about our local schools. Where it’s appropriate, I will use that data to guide other reporting. For example, if a school closes due to multiple COVID-19 cases, that will be reported when it happens. I won’t wait a week to tell you about it. Your input on this decision was taken into account, but it wasn’t the only factor. The constant thump of reporting so many deaths a day wears me down. It probably wears you down, too. I get it.

But I hope you can get where I’m coming from, no matter how you feel about reopening schools. And I hope you will take a pause, get off Facebook, put on a mask or jump on Zoom and have a one-on-one conversation with that neighbor you’ve been arguing with online. Because while we might disagree strongly about many topics, we need to start healing some rifts within our own community before they become permanent ones.

Stop demonizing each other. Start listening. And don’t let your desire for something to be true get in the way of the truth.

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