Cobb Co. School District Sticks With ‘Mask Optional’ Policy, Defying Medical Experts

Parents who want Cobb to mandate masks in schools held up signs urging the district to follow science and CDC guidelines.

Martha Dalton

A House Divided

Cobb County School District Superintendent Chris Ragsdale says masks will remain optional in the district even as the number of COVID-19 cases in Georgia and the county continue to rise. Ragsdale made the announcement at a school board meeting Thursday, to the delight of some parents in attendance.

“Mandatory masking is not without a cost,” Ragsdale said.

His comments came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Georgia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended all school staff and students over the age of two wear masks. Additionally, 240 Cobb physicians sent a letter to Ragsdale and the board urging them to adopt a mask mandate.

The issue has polarized the community and the school board. Leroy “Tre’” Hutchins asked to discuss the district’s new COVID-19 protocols, but board chair Randy Scamihorn wouldn’t change the meeting agenda.

Scamihorn said last-minute changes could be made in emergencies and said Hutchins’ concerns didn’t meet that standard. That sparked a verbal altercation between Scamihorn and board member Jaha Howard, who questioned the chairman’s judgment.

“You determine if it’s an emergency?” Howard asked. “Because it sounded as if it’s open to interpretation.”

The two continued to argue while Hutchins tried to interject remotely. Finally, board attorney Nina Gupta suggested a recess. The board then entered an executive session, where meetings are private.

Holding Out

The district’s reluctance to discuss mandatory masking has puzzled and frustrated some parents, especially as other metro Atlanta districts like APS, DeKalb, Gwinnett, and Fulton have all followed CDC guidelines. Marietta City Schools, which is in Cobb County, announced this week it will implement a mask mandate next week.

“I could not tell you off the top of my head where Marietta City Schools begin and Cobb County’s end,” said Cobb parent Annie Seixas. “So I’m not really sure why maybe one street over, one school would not require masks, and the next street they would be requiring masks.”

Seixas says her kids wear masks at school. But she’s also concerned about her elderly mother, who lives with them.

“Even though she’s vaccinated, she is still at the at-risk population,” she said. “So, we’re always keeping in mind her health as well as our children’s health at the same time.”

Cobb County parents on both sides of the mask mandate debate protested before Thursday’s school board meeting. (Martha Dalton/WABE)

But other Cobb parents like Genevieve Carroll want the district to stick with its current policy, even as the Delta variant causes cases to increase.

“I respect people’s rights to wear masks, but I believe that everybody’s allowed to do their own health research and talk to their medical professionals and make choices for their families and other people should not impose their will on others,” she said.

Carroll said wearing a mask gave her high school daughter anxiety last year, but she’s much more at ease this year.

“I’m really happy with the current policy and I’m appalled that people are doing this [pushing for a mandate].”

Families had to decide last spring whether they wanted to enroll in virtual learning for the 2021-22 school year. That was before the district loosened its COVID-19 protocols, including doing away with its mask mandate. Christie Griffith, a mom of three, told the board she felt stuck.

“We can no longer change to virtual schooling and private schools are too expensive,” she said. “You’ve left us with the option of sending our children into buildings where the community spread is out of control.”

While masks will remain optional for now, the district will open some seats in its virtual academy for the second semester for families who want to switch. Students will be chosen by lottery and families will be notified of their status in November.

Fact vs. Fiction

The other battle some parents are fighting is the misinformation that some are spreading in the community.

Some community members took the opportunity to oppose mask mandates and several other cultural issues. (Martha Dalton/WABE)

As parents protested on both sides of the mask issue before the school board meeting, some were shouting debunked claims like “Masks don’t work!” and claimed COVID-19 cases are mild in children. Board member David Banks also reportedly shared debunked claims about masking with parents. The district said, “…the comments of any individual board member should not be understood as official Board policy or positions of the Board as a whole.” Banks didn’t respond to requests for comment.

This week, Dr. Jim Fortenberry, chief medical officer at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, said cases are increasing among kids.

“During this surge of the Delta variant…we are seeing a significantly greater impact on our children and our teens,” he said.

Duke University has heavily researched COVID-19 in schools and the effectiveness of masks at reducing the spread of the virus.

“The virus is not more transmissible as it relates to evading masking,” said Dr. Danny Benjamin, a professor of pediatrics at Duke. “We know that masking will work. For schools that elect not to mask…best of luck with them.”