As the controversy over the reopening of schools wages on, districts around the country have already opened their doors to students this week. However, many administrators have discovered that their student body is not on the same page when it comes to pandemic safety protocol.
An image snapped by a Georgia student on the first day of the new school year on Monday depicted a packed hallway with very few masks in sight. The photo went viral on Twitter, now with close to 92,000 likes.
The unsettling picture quickly became emblematic of the passionate debate, which has pitted parents, students, teachers, administrators and politicians, from usually close-knit communities, against each other.
The Associated Press confirmed that the photo was taken at North Paulding High School, the same Paulding county institution, less than 50 miles northwest of Atlanta, where “positive tests and potential symptoms [of COVID-19]” have already been identified, according to an email from North Paulding High School principal Gabe Carmona to WSB-TV on Sunday.
The district welcomed students back for in-class learning on August 3, while also giving them the option to continue lessons virtually from home. Of the district’s 31,000 students, 20,000 have returned to campus.
Now, it seems the backlash aimed at one school has roiled administrators, who have reportedly gone on a suspension spree, allegedly targeting students caught documenting their concerns in a public forum.
North Paulding student Hannah Watters, 15, tweeted a video on August 4, showing “what is looks like even with split dismissal,” referring to the school’s measure of staggering dismissal times. The video shows a crowded hallway, again, with few face masks and no attention to social distancing.
She told BuzzFeed
Watters also posted a tally of masks during each of her class “blocks” — prior to suspension. In all but one of her classes from Aug. 3-5, well below half of the students were counted with a mask, with most classes containing between 20-30 students each.
“The policies I broke stated that I used my phone in the hallway without permission, used my phone for social media, and posting pictures of minors without consent,” she said.
Watters told the news site she had hoped to add to the national conversation and demonstrate how her school “ignorantly opened back up.”
“Not only did they open, but they have not been safe,” she continued. “Many people are not following CDC guidelines because the county did not make these precautions mandatory.”
Later, a woman named Grace Watters, who claimed on Twitter to be Hannah’s sister and alum of the school, added that “multiple students” had been suspended for sharing what they saw in their first days of school during a pandemic.
The Post has reached out to both women for comment.
Despite Watters’ citation, the severe punishment she faced appears to be in accordance with a recently established disciplinary code regarding how the school is presented on social media by its students. On Wednesday, principal Carmona reportedly announced over the intercom that “any student found criticizing the school on social media could face disciplinary consequences,” BuzzFeed reported.
Furthermore, in an email to Associated Press, Paulding County Superintendent Brian Ottot said Tuesday, “Wearing a mask is a personal choice and there is no practical way to enforce a mandate to wear them” — despite having a very clear and enforceable dress code on the district’s website, which bars, among dozens of other style choices, “pants that touch the ground,” ” sweatbands” and garments with “frayed ends.”
Embattled Georgia schools have made headlines all week. On Monday, it was revealed that the state’s largest school district in Gwinnett County was compromised well before bells rang on the first day, as some 260 district employees either tested positive for COVID-19 or had been exposed through someone else, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
And on Wednesday, just two days after the first day of school, Atlanta’s WXIA reported that a second-grader was yanked from Georgia’s Cherokee county school district after parents learned that their child had the coronavirus.