PAULDING COUNTY, Ga. — Worried and frustrated parents of students in the Paulding County School District voiced their concerns in a face-to-face school board meeting on Thursday, following an attention-grabbing first week back to school during the coronavirus pandemic.
Parents and students arrived early and filled the room for the regular public comment section of the meeting - trying to social distance, masks optional. 11Alive monitored the meeting, which brought out parents and students with strong opinions both for and against in-person learning, as well as for and against mask mandates.
The crowd clearly favored the board keeping in-person learning as an option - along with online learning - even though students and employees are already testing positive for COVID-19.
“Our children need the teachers," one father said. “They need that face-to-face - that nurturing - that teachers give our children.”
The district was among the first in Georgia to go back to school, on Monday, August 3, allowing parents to opt for either virtual or in-person learning for the fall semester.
But immediately, the district was thrust in the national discourse on whether students were safe back in school, after a photo posted to social media went viral, showing students crowded in a hallway, with some not wearing masks. The face coverings, which are mandatory for staff, are not required among students.
The district confirmed earlier this week that nine students and employees tested positive for the virus, leading to the temporary closure of North Paulding High School - where that viral photo was taken - to in-person learning, requiring all students to use on-line learning, temporarily, beginning Monday, August 10. The district's superintendent, Dr. Brian Otott, is set to announce plans for re-opening the school to students on Wednesday.
North Paulding Senior Grace Dabbelt and her mother told 11Alive News outside the school board meeting that they support in-person learning, acknowledging the infections, but saying it was a risk they, personally, were willing to take.
“Unfortunately, they did get it, but I just feel like that’s the risk some of us Seniors are willing to take to have our senior year," Grace Dabbelt said.
“We aren’t afraid of the virus," her mother Kristin added. "We’re not afraid, and we take precautions. It’s not going to go away, and we’re just not afraid.”
But North Paulding High School alum Jamie Sebastian said the school system is not prepared to be safe, yet. She started a petition to suspend in-person learning until safety measures are in place and observed.
“I think that there can be steps taken to make in person learning safe, but I don’t think the board has taken those steps,” Sebastian said.
After she spoke before the board, a few in the audience jeered; a board member intervened, telling everyone to “chill.”
During the meeting, Otott promised that on Wednesday he would address many of the issues that arose in the first week of classes, like the crowded hallway at North Paulding High School. School Board Member Glen Albright - who supports the dual, in-person and online models - said that, overall, the district's plan is working.
Albright said nothing has happened, so far, that wasn’t anticipated, including finding out that students and staff were testing positive. He said the plan for dealing with that in high schools, middle schools and elementary schools as the school year continues will keep everyone safe.
"So, (the plan) is working," he said. "Be patient. Have courage. And know that everything is going to work out fine."
As of this week, school officials said that about 20,000 Paulding County public school students are enrolled in in-person learning across the district's 33 schools. Those enrolled in online learning are as follows: about 3,700 in elementary schools, 2,500 in middle schools and 3,100 for high school (grades 9-12).
Starting Friday, the board will post on its website all positive cases counted each week at each of its 33 schools.
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