Reopened schools in Georgia’s Paulding and Cherokee counties drew negative attention this week after viral photographs appeared to show students packing hallways with little regard for social distancing or mask-wearing.
The most prominent images were taken on Tuesday by a 10th grader in North Paulding High School who posted them on social media and described the hallway situation as severely jammed.
Other viral images showed students from Cherokee County’s Etowah High School and Sequoyah High School standing in close proximity for senior photos with nary a mask in sight.
Prior to schools reopening on Monday, North Paulding High School’s principal, Gabe Carmona, sent a letter to parents alerting them that members of the football team had contracted COVID-19, not specifying the numbers or the severity of their cases.
According to BuzzFeed, Carmona also addressed the viral images on Wednesday, reportedly stating over the intercom that students who publicly criticized the school on social media could face disciplinary action.
Two students — including the 10th grader who posted the images of the crowded hallway — told BuzzFeed they were suspended for sharing photos online, with school administration citing violations of the school’s phone policy and posting pictures of minors without consent as reasons for the punishment.
Paulding County Superintendent Brian Otott also addressed the images in a statement, arguing that they were being criticized “without context” and saying the crowds only lasted for a “brief period” when students were transitioning between classes.
“Wearing a mask is a personal choice and there is no practical way to enforce a mandate to wear them,” Otott said. “What we will do is strongly encourage all students and staff to wear masks.”
Paulding County schools have both in-person and “virtual academies” available during the fall semester, and according to Atlanta media outlet 11Alive News, 70% of the county’s 31,000 students have returned for in-person learning, with 9,000 in online classes.
A notice on the district’s websites says that while students and staff are encouraged to wear masks during in-person schooling, face coverings will not be mandatory because “the school district recognizes that wearing a face mask is a personal choice for families.”
A reopening plan on the Cherokee County School Board website reveals a similar strategy, with both in-person schooling and a digital learning program in place. Regulations require “all employees to wear face coverings in situations where social distancing cannot be achieved,” while students are “strongly encourage[d] and recommend[ed]” to wear masks.
The plan indicates that the school district “will provide every student with two reusable cloth masks upon request.”
On Tuesday, school officials at Cherokee County’s Sixes Elementary School announced that a second-grader had tested positive for COVID-19, forcing the student’s class of 20 students to undergo a two-week quarantine.
A message from Superintendent Brian V. Hightower said that the district was “going to take positive cases seriously” and shut down schools if necessary.
“We need to fight that good fight together: social distance when we can, and mask up when we can’t; wash our hands, and be kind,” Hightower said. “We are stronger together.”
Atlanta pediatrician Frita Fisher, an advocate of mandatory masks and social distancing in the classroom, told 11Alive News that reopening Georgia schools with shaky social distancing measures and without making masks mandatory for all students was “very frustrating and unsettling.”
“It’s upsetting because we are sending our kids to school knowing that we are putting them at an increased risk for spreading coronavirus among themselves and to the community,” Fisher said.
This story has been updated to reflect that students sharing photos of North Paulding High School’s crowds received suspensions.