ATLANTA, Ga. (CW69 News at 10/CNN) — Stefanie Watts, like some other parents, admits she’s worried about sending her granddaughter and her son back to school on Monday.

“I’m scared,” Watts told CNN at a vaccination event in DeKalb County, Georgia. “I’m not gonna tell no lie. I am scared.”

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But that’s why Watts is getting the teens vaccinated, hoping it will keep them healthy and safe from COVID-19 when they go back to their Atlanta-area schools.

“Sometimes you’re going to have to take risks, sometimes you’re not. And right now, going back to school is a risk,” Watts said. “But I also want them to have their education.”

Georgia students are among the earliest to return to school. And as the Peach State resumes classes in the coming days and weeks, it could offer a glimpse at what back-to-school will look like for a country reeling from a summer surge of COVID-19 spurred by the highly transmissible Delta variant.

With 181 school districts, the first day of school varies throughout Georgia. But some of the state’s largest districts go back this week, particularly in the Atlanta metro area.

DeKalb County, which includes part of Atlanta, begins Monday, as do Cobb and Clayton counties to the northwest and south. Atlanta Public Schools students begin the year Thursday, and Gwinnett County Schools — the state’s largest district — will start Wednesday, but have grades alternating between in-person and remote learning Wednesday, Thursday and next Monday.

Like much of the country, Georgia is seeing COVID-19 infections climb. As of Friday, the seven-day moving average of new daily cases was more than 3,000 cases reported per day for the first time since early March, according to a CNN analysis of Johns Hopkins University data.

Georgia’s Department of Public Health said Friday the case rate had increased 204% over the prior 14-day period, while hospitalizations had jumped about 50% and deaths about 18% in the same period.

And COVID-19 can and does affect children, even if in fewer numbers than among adults, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Fox News on Friday.

“More hospitalizations have occurred in demographics that are over the age of 65, but we are seeing illness in some kids who get who get COVID, and it’s illness at rates that are even higher than the rates of influenza,” she said.

Schools are also a source of spread for COVID-19, she said.

Her agency released guidance last month that emphasized in-person learning as a priority, and many districts will have students back in schools. But how schools choose to handle COVID-19 will be left to local districts, Georgia State School Superintendent Richard Woods said last month.

In Cobb County, there will be social distancing in classrooms when possible, per the district’s website, but masks are optional for students and staff. Masks are recommended but optional in Fulton County Schools, where students start August 9.

Atlanta Public Schools will require masks for all students and teachers, along with other prevention strategies like physical distancing when feasible, as will Dekalb County and Gwinnett County. The latter previously said masks would be optional, but the district shifted its stance last week, citing CDC guidance, the “rise in COVID-19 cases” in the county and young students’ ineligibility for a vaccine.

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Some Gwinnett County parents opposed the decision and protested at the district’s office on Friday, CNN affiliate WSB-TV reported. One participant held a sign that read, “Masks hurt children more than COVID ever will,” video showed.

Watts — whose granddaughter goes to school in Newton County, about 26 miles east of Atlanta, and whose son goes to school in DeKalb — doesn’t see an issue with students wearing masks.

“Everybody should be used to it by now,” she said, adding that her teenagers will be wearing face coverings.

“With the vaccines, I think that would help,” she says. “I’m praying that it does.”

U.S. goes back to school amid rising cases …

Districts in other Southern states are also starting school this week or facing an imminent return: Birmingham City Schools in Alabama also start Monday. Schools in Jefferson County, which includes the city of Birmingham, start August 10.

Florida’s Broward County Schools welcome students back August 18, while the neighboring Miami-Dade County Public Schools — the state’s largest district — will return August 23.

Students’ returns come as CDC data shows that the vast majority of counties across the South are seeing “high” levels of community transmission of COVID-19. That means they have 100 or more cases per 100,000 people or a test positivity rate of 10% or higher.

But it’s not just the South: Across the country, students are gearing up for yet another pandemic school year with their communities once again under assault by the coronavirus.

On Sunday, cases were rising in every state compared to the week prior, per an analysis of Johns Hopkins data. Cases were climbing by more than 10% in 48 states, 34 of had cases climbing by more than 50%. Nationally, the seven-day moving average of new cases was 78,600 cases reported per day on Saturday, up from about 12,700 on July 1.

The risks are apparent, even with masks and other precautions: Back in Atlanta, at least nine students and five staff members tested positive at Drew Charter School in Atlanta’s East Lake neighborhood, just two days after the school year began, prompting the quarantine of more than 100 students.

The school had tested about 1,900 students and staff prior to reopening, Peter McKnight, the head of the school, told CNN Saturday. It was also mandating masks and socially distancing, among other measures. The school felt prepared, he said.

Vaccinations haven’t been mandatory for staff, but that’s under consideration too, McKnight said.

“This is certainly not what we expected for the start of the school year,” McKnight said. “And I know it’s not what our families expected either.”

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