COBB COUNTY, Ga. — Cobb County parents say they feel like they're waiting for the other shoe to drop. About a week ago, Superintendent Chris Ragsdale announced the district will no longer be contact tracing COVID-19 cases.
That came as a surprise to many parents, teachers, and some school board members. Now, many fear the superintendent will also opt out of the state's free COVID-19 testing for the district.
Back in August, the Cobb County School District sent a survey out asking parents if they're interested in free COVID-19 testing in schools. The results were never released, until grassroots advocacy organization Watching The Funds - Cobb filed an open records request.
Heather Tolley-Bauer is a Cobb County parent and the co-founder of the organization.
“What we found was startling to us that they wouldn't share that information," she said. "Because 79.3% of the respondents said yes, they would support and did want optional COVID testing available in the schools.”
A Cobb County teacher we spoke to anonymously said she has not heard about the free program yet. She is also a Cobb County mother.
"They polled the parents this past year... we never heard a response," she said.
Last week, Governor Brian Kemp sent out a letter, relaxing contact tracing for schools, and mentioning that the state health department is offering free COVID-19 testing to districts:
"The Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) is offering a COVID-19 testing program, at no cost to you or your schools. This program is an expanded version of the program offered last fall. It now allows for the testing of symptomatic and asymptomatic students, staff, faculty, and their family members. The testing program is completely voluntary and is based on informed consent of participants. This is a “turn-key” operation and will not disrupt your facility or staff. The main requirement is to identify a location for the contractor to carry out the testing."
At a board meeting the same day that letter was released, Superintendent Ragsdale said the district will no longer contact trace, but there was no mention of the free testing.
“Students, staff, teachers, and families could have free COVID testing... not only free to us, but free to the district. It wouldn't cost us a dime," explained Tolley-Bauer. "And we've not been told that they're opting in to that free service or not.”
11Alive asked the district if it plans to offer the free in-school testing, and if so, when will it start. In response, the district gave no direct answer other than the following statement:
"We remain committed to considering all options which support safe, high-quality learning environments for all 110,000 of our students, their families, and our staff."
Parents have not been made aware of any free testing options available for their kids.
School board member Dr. Jaha Howard says he has not been made aware of this either.
“We have yet to receive any communications from our superintendent about it. I’m so eager to see what we will do," he said. "I think I share many of the concerns most parents have out there. Folks in the community, we have lots of questions, and very little conversation... public conversation. So I think we have some work to do. Definitely."
More than 17,000 people work for the district, making it the largest employer in the county.
“I hope they're strongly considering on instituting this COVID test within the school system because it alleviates a financial and an emotional burden to all of their stakeholders, would alleviate long lines at other testing facilities, would alleviate a burden on the health care system... and by the way, would keep workers healthy and safe and able to work," added Tolley-Bauer. "110,000 students and 17,743 employees means CCSD has the opportunity to keep about 15% of the Cobb County population healthy and safe."
11Alive has asked the district for a more specific answer on whether or not it is opting to use the free testing program, and has asked for an interview with Superintendent Ragsdale. As of Wednesday night, the district had not answered.
"When you're the largest employer in a county, I say you have a responsibility to make sure that the health and safety of the entire county is is being attended to and with this decision, they can absolutely do that," said Tolley-Bauer.
For over a year, Tolley-Bauer's organization has been tracking how the district spends its money. She explains that the district received $160 million in American Rescue Plan funds.
Parents and educators 11Alive spoke to said they were hoping that money would be used on enhancing ventilation in the school buildings.
"Instead, we have you know, $14,000 hand washing machines that I have never seen that by all reports don't work," said an anonymous teacher.
Tolley-Bauer adds that the district used $12 million from the CARES act for UV lights that malfunctioned about a year ago.
"Are they doing everything that they can do to mitigate COVID? I would say no, they are not," she said.
A COVID-19 virtual town hall will be hosted by Chairwoman Lisa Cupid Thursday night. In it, experts from WellStar and Cobb and Doug Public Health will answer questions and concerns about the omicron variant as well as its impact on the county.
"I'm really proud of our local hospitals Department of Public Health and commissioners who are teaming up together to make sure that folks know about the ramped up testing sites and capacity," said Dr. Howard. "I'm hoping that such a huge entity like our public school system, will be partners in that, but it seems like everybody else knows how important this is and I'm hoping that we can be a part of that teamwork."
We also reached out to the district to ask why it has not posted its COVID-19 case counts on its website since mid-December.
In response, the district said:
"Recent changes to our public health protocols, and their impact on accurate COVID-19 case counts, are under review. Once determined, we will provide an update on our COVID-19 webpage about what process we will use going forward."