Prayers, applause and strong opinions swirled around at an emotionally charged Paulding County School District Board of Education meeting on Tuesday night, video shows.
Parents, teachers and students voiced their conflicting beliefs on school safety and leadership as the Georgia school district grapples with providing an education during a global pandemic.
Paulding County School District was shoved onto the national stage in the past week when at least two North Paulding High School students shared pictures and video that went viral of a crowded hallway of mostly maskless students. The students were suspended for posting the images, a decision that was later reversed for at least one of them. The high school shuttered its doors this week for a third day for cleaning after six students and at least three staff members tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
During the meeting, some parents underscored the need for in-person learning as they try to maintain full-time jobs, and others asked the district to provide a data-driven agenda for in-person learning as well as mask mandates.
The clapping and sounds of agreement appeared to show most attendees were in favor of in-school learning over virtual, providing a vivid illustration of how responses to the coronavirus have become divided.
Nearly 70 percent of Paulding County voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election, and more than 71 percent voted for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, according to Atlanta Journal Constitution data.
Parents such as Jennifer Whitlock, who has children attending schools in the district, eschewed and questioned the benefits of children wearing masks and made specious comparisons between the coronavirus and strep throat.
Whitlock called the coronavirus “China virus,” a phrase Trump has used, and she called for a return to normalcy.
“As much as we’re fearful of the unknown, the one thing I know is God is in control,” she said, with applause following her point.
North Paulding High School 2014 graduate Jamie Sebastian later told board of education members that they were unprepared to handle schooling during a pandemic. Sebastian started a petition days ago calling on the district to cancel all in-person instruction until it could ensure a safe environment for staff and students.
A heated exchange between her and other attendees followed her remarks, causing board members to bang the gavel for order.
Everyone had a choice about whether to send their children to Paulding County schools, one of the first in the state to open for instruction, but teachers were left without any options and not consulted about reopening plans, according to Meredith Hanft, a literature teacher at South Paulding High School.
Hanft accused the district of failing to provide adequate education and cleaning supplies and claimed that some teachers reported that cleaning classrooms was optional.
Her decision to wear a mask has caused her to be mocked by her own students, she said.
“Our state superintendent has said it is okay to mandate masks. Our governor has said this school board has the right to mandate masks,” she said. “You should be protecting your teachers. We want to be with the students. We don’t want to close the schools down.”
Fellow South Paulding teacher Rhonda Kelley said the district has fallen short when it comes to preparing teachers with adequate classroom disinfectants, equipment that will help them teach on virtual days, and social distancing plans that would protect teachers and students.
Kelley said the classroom cleaner provided to her and other teachers induced an asthma attack in one of her students. Upon further research, she found that it’s not recommended for daily use and should be handled with proper protective gear, which she didn’t have.
Paulding County School District Superintendent Brian Otott said a detailed reopening plan for North Paulding High School will be released sometime Wednesday.
Starting Friday, the district will create an online list of positive cases reported at each of its 33 schools, Otott said.
He assured the community that the district is working with health officials to provide a safe environment to track any spread of the virus.
One of the last speakers of the night was North Paulding High School sophomore Mariah Krakowski. The teen said her first three days of school in the past week were her happiest in a while, as online school weakened her friendships and made her days feel empty.
“We shouldn’t be forced to go online because others are fearful. That is our decision,” she said. “Please don’t take my freedom of choice away and let me attend in-person school.”
Shouts and enthusiastic claps followed.