Georgia schools off to bumpy start as virus spreads and mask politics erupt

Cherokee County mother Alexandra Smith posted this photo to a Georgia coronavirus forum on Reddit after she says her son was forced to take off his mask for a class photo. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Smith

Schools should not penalize students for sharing concerns about COVID-19 safety, state Superintendent Richard Woods said Friday in a statement seemingly directed at administrators in some of the state’s earliest-opening districts who have threatened discipline for students who share images showing their schools in a bad light.

“To be very clear, discipline decisions are constitutionally the purview of local boards of education,” he said. “With that said, I want to encourage our districts and schools to operate with transparency, and to ensure that students and staff are not penalized for expressing their concerns.”

The first week of school in some of the state’s earliest-opening districts has been upended by quarantines. Bad press followed viral student photographs of largely maskless crowds in hallways. And the nationwide spotlight on Georgia’s public school reopening comes as the largest districts in the state have yet to resume classes.

In Paulding County, a North Paulding High School student was suspended this week for sharing a widely-circulated photo of a crowd of mostly bare-faced students in transition between classes. 

Students later leaked an audio recording of North Paulding Principal Gabe Carmona threatening them with disciplinary action if they post unflattering information about the school.

“There will be consequences for those students or anyone who sends out those pictures, so please, be careful and not send out things,” he said.

The suspended student’s punishment was reversed on Friday and she will face no disciplinary action, according to multiple news outlets.

Photographs from Cherokee County schools have frustrated administrators there as well.

Maskless high students posing shoulder-to-shoulder for senior photos outside Sequoyah High School in Canton and Etowah High School in Woodstock went viral on social media and drew criticism from around the country.

Masks politics follow students to school

While several of the state’s larger school districts are restarting with either virtual classes or a hybrid of online and in-person sessions, Cherokee and Paulding county schools are notable among the early starters for not requiring masks.

One mother of a Cherokee County third-grader says she’s pulling her son out of in-person learning at Liberty Elementary after a teacher told him to take off his mask for a class photo.

“They were shoulder to shoulder, no masks in sight,” Alexandra Smith said. “I don’t care about anyone else’s kid, if you don’t want them in a mask, whatever. My kid knows to wear a mask, and in the picture, he’s holding it.”

More than 250 Cherokee County students or employees have been quarantined during the first week of school there, with 180 of those cases announced on Friday.

At Bascob Elementary School, an after school program worker tested positive after working Monday, leading to the quarantines of 21 first-graders, 10 kindergarteners and another after school program employee.

A sixth grade student at Creekland Middle School tested positive after attending classes Monday and Tuesday, and 20 students are on quarantine.

Another 23 Cherokee High School students are on quarantine after an 11th grade student and a 12th grade student who are not related both tested positive for COVID-19. The 11th grader last attended school on Wednesday, and the 12th grader last attended on Tuesday.

Two students at Creekview High School, a 10th grader and a 12th who are not related tested positive. Both attended school on Monday without symptoms, and 55 students will quarantine as a result.

A ninth grade student at Etowah High School began showing symptoms after school Thursday and received a positive diagnosis. Due to this exposure, 30 students and one teacher are set to quarantine.

And 20 students will have to quarantine after a Woodstock High School junior began showing symptoms after school Tuesday.

More than 60 Cherokee County students and employees from four different schools were quarantined by Wednesday. Nine more students and a third-grade teacher at Holly Springs Elementary School STEM Academy were sent home Thursday after the teacher tested positive for COVID-19, despite showing no symptoms at school.

Sending her son back to school was a very difficult decision for Smith, but she felt it was the best option.

“It was something my husband and I had to discuss a lot,” she said. “I took a leave of absence from work because I’m high-risk. I have pretty severe asthma, but unfortunately, they let me go, so I am home now. My son struggled with the digital learning at the end of last semester. He told me straight up, he hated it.”

Smith said she also felt the digital option would be inferior to in-person learning, so she signed him up for class and made sure to remind him to wear his mask. When she saw him without it in the photo, she asked him why he didn’t have it on. He told her his teacher asked everyone to take their masks off so she could see their smiles.

“And the reason that my son took his mask off is because I’ve also told my son, you listen to your teacher, you don’t talk back, you’re not rude, you do what they tell you. His teacher took all that training I took the time to instill in my child and make him realize the seriousness of this. Gone in one second. And it’s only because he was doing what I told him.”

Smith said her boy has been staying home from school. She’s trying to get him signed up for virtual learning, but Cherokee County, like most other districts that offer a choice between face-to-face or digital learning, only allows students to switch selections after a set amount of time — nine weeks for elementary school and a full semester for middle and high school.

“So now we’re in limbo,” Smith said. 

The battle over masks and whether people should face penalties for not wearing them has been a constant source of tension in COVID-19 Georgia, with Gov. Brian Kemp and heads of local governments, including Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms, at loggerheads over local mask requirements. 

“Wearing a mask is a personal choice and there is no practical way to enforce a mandate to wear them,” Paulding County Superintendent Brian Otott said in a message to parents following the media scrutiny surrounding the hallway photo.

Schools do have the authority to mandate masks, said Otott’s boss, State Superintendent Woods.

“While the use of face coverings/masks is not mandated by the state, it is strongly recommended in settings where social distancing is difficult to accomplish – including hallway transitions,” he said. “Local school districts do have the authority to require face coverings as part of their dress code policy.”

That’s the approach districts including Atlanta Public Schools are taking. Atlanta schools are starting the year with universal digital learning, but students may enter buildings for limited reasons that require in-person interaction.

Quarantines quickly send students, staff home

Quarantines are also disrupting the start of school for students in other school districts. At least one Paulding County elementary student received a COVID-19 diagnosis on the first day of school. Columbia County has reported at least three cases, all among high school students.

But the administrator’s approach to public disclosure of a case of coronavirus at their school can vary from district to district. Cherokee County is pledging to publish a weekly tally of cases and post copies of letters sent to parents on its website which include the locations of the quarantine and the number of people affected.

Columbia County’s superintendent says she does not plan to disclose details of every positive case to anyone other than the families of the students they determine had close contact who’s infected.

“Because we respect the privacy of individuals who have contracted the virus, we don’t believe it is appropriate to make public the specifics of such situations,” said Superintendent Sandra Carraway after two high school students reported their COVID-19 infections Tuesday. “However, we will follow with fidelity the protocols and, as in this case, inform individuals who may have been directly or indirectly in contact with the infected individual.

Despite some outbreaks and the spread of viral photos, many parents of students who are returning to the schoolhouse say they believe their choice was the right one for their child. Some students do not have access to the technology they need to study online. Others have special needs that can best be met in a physical classroom.

Studying in person in the age of COVID-19 involves sacrifices, said Columbia County mom Holly Nelson Joiner, but a good education is worth it.

“There are going to be positive cases,” she said. “We know that.”

Joiner’s daughter is a freshman at one of the high schools with a confirmed positive case. She’s doing everything she can do to keep herself and the family safe.

“She’s wearing a mask where social distancing isn’t possible,” Joiner said. “She has a supply of masks – she’s made and donated over 2,100 during the pandemic – that have filters. She has hand sanitizer and wipes. She takes her shoes off at the door and heads straight upstairs to shower when she gets off the bus. Washes clothes and masks daily.”

Joiner said her daughter misses not being able to visit her grandparents who live two doors down, but she sees it as necessary for her education.

“She can talk to them through the open door or on the deck. It’s a sacrifice,” she said. “She wanted to go back to school, so this is how we make it work.”

Many more students about to test school return

Next week will mark the first day back for some districts that delayed their starts, including Forsyth County and the state’s largest district, Gwinnett County.

Students in Gwinnett are set to begin the semester online, but the district plans to begin offering in-person classes for some students starting Aug. 26 and having in-person classes available to all students by Sept. 9. That decision has sparked protest from some Gwinnett teachers, who say it’s too soon to go back into classrooms.

On Sunday, 260 Gwinnett County School employees told district officials they had either tested positive for COVID-19 or been exposed.

The state’s second-largest district, Cobb County Schools, has had about 100 students or staff with suspected cases of COVID-19 before the first bell rings, according to the Marietta Daily Journal. Cobb is beginning its school year virtually Aug. 17 and has not announced a date for resuming face-to-face instruction, instead tying a phased reopening to the rate of spread of COVID-19 in the area. Some parents have taken to the streets to protest, demanding immediate resumption of in-person instruction.

Cobb County parents took to the street to protest universal digital learning. Cobb County Schools has not announced a date for resuming face-to-face classes. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder.

One smaller district announced a shift to fully digital learning Wednesday night, less than two weeks before school is set to start there. More than 90 Barrow County Schools employees have been forced to quarantine because of potential COVID-19 exposure.

“We made a very difficult decision based on the increasing number of COVID-19 cases in our county, as well as the concerns over being able to appropriately staff our schools,” said Barrow County Superintendent Chris McMichael. “If today was the first day of school, we would have been hard-pressed to have sufficient staff available to open our schools.”