The mask wars in a Georgia school district continued Tuesday with a contentious school board meeting that featured adults yelling at each other but no resolution on questions of public health.
The Paulding school district in Dallas, Georgia, which oversees more than 20,000 students in 33 schools, opted to open last week without requiring students to wear masks to protect them from coronavirus, and then suspended students who posted photos of crowded hallways to social media, photos that quickly went viral. The district also told students they could be expelled if they didn’t come to school — even if they were afraid to do so.
Many members of the football team, which began practices earlier this summer, and some staff members had already tested positive, leading some to worry they were sending their children straight into a contagious environment. District officials had called masks a “personal choice.”
More than 1,200 people tuned in to a livestream of the district’s first board meeting of the year, although masks weren’t officially on the agenda. Regardless, face coverings dominated the meeting’s public comment section, with teachers, parents, and community members testifying in person and yelling at each other and the board. Some of the board members wore masks. Some of them proudly did not. Only nine people who had signed up ahead of time were allowed to speak — although even so the board blew through the 30 minutes it had allotted for public comment.
“Today I had six students out of 80 who wore a mask,” said Meredith Hanft, who teaches at South Paulding High School and sported a white surgical mask. She told the board she wanted to be “in the classroom” with her students, but “without fears for our own personal safety and the safety of our family.” She said she was speaking on behalf of herself and for many of her fellow teachers who were too afraid of repercussions to speak out.
She added: “It’s been repeated more times than I can count, everyone has a choice.” But, she said, “teachers were not given a choice.”
But Mariah Krakowski, a high school sophomore in Paulding County, addressed the board with her face uncovered and said she wanted to be able to go back to school in person. “The first three days of school I was the happiest I’ve been in a while,” she said. “We need to get back into normal life.”
Several parents also complained that the school had threatened to punish students who made negative social media posts about the school, including one parent, Jon Gargis, who reminded the school board that "the First Amendment rights of our students ... aren't left at the schoolhouse door."
At one point, the meeting was disrupted when audience members without masks began yelling at a speaker who doesn’t have children in the district, but supported masks; attendees wearing masks defended the speaker’s position.
Board members could not officially discuss the mask issue because it was not on the agenda, but after the meeting’s official business — which included celebrating a student for winning a language arts award — several spoke about back-to-school and the fallout from the media coverage of the school’s hallway.
“There’s some folks that are afraid right now, and I get it,” Board Member Glen Albright said. “But we have to be able to get our lives moving forward and back to normal again. We can’t stay in fear forever. At some point we’ve got to be able to stand up and say it’s time to move forward, no matter what awaits us.”
Superintendent Brian Otott said that the district will release a plan Wednesday for how to address hallway crowding at North Paulding. He also said that school policy requires a 14-day quarantine for all elementary school students who’ve been in class with an infected student, and a 14-day quarantine for all middle and high school students who’ve come into close contact with an infected student, as determined by the school nurse.