North Paulding High remains closed a third day after COVID cases

Superintendent says reopening plan coming Wednesday

UPDATE: North Paulding High School remains closed Wednesday. Paulding Superintendent Brian Otott said at a school board meeting Tuesday night that a reopening plan for the school would be released today.

The Paulding County high school that became infamous for hallways crowded with unmasked students will retreat online for at least a couple days this week after revealing that a half-dozen students and three staffers were diagnosed with COVID-19.

The district said it needs time to disinfect the North Paulding High School building and look for other potentially infected individuals.

“On Monday and Tuesday, the school will be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, and the district will consult with the Department of Public Health to assess the environment and determine if there (are) any additional close contacts for confirmed cases who have not already been identified,” Paulding Superintendent Brian Otott wrote in a letter to parents Sunday.

Otott said parents will be notified Tuesday evening about whether North Paulding High School will reopen Wednesday.

“I apologize for any inconvenience this schedule change may cause, but hopefully we all can agree that the health and safety of our students and staff takes precedence over any other considerations at this time,” he wrote.

Otott’s letter followed one Saturday by Principal Gabe Carmona disclosing to parents that six students and three staff members who were in the school last week had reported getting positive tests for the coronavirus.

The school made national news after it opened Monday and images of the crowded hallways quickly went viral on social media.

The school district suspended two students, including one who publicly acknowledged posting one of the photos on Tuesday. The punishment led to a national outcry from critics who said school leaders were trying to silence the students. After the pushback, the district relented and lifted the suspensions on Friday.

In the weekend letters from Otott and Carmona, district officials advised parents to have their children tested for COVID-19 if they were displaying common symptoms, such as fever or loss of taste or smell.

Angie Franks said both her nephews who attend the school have tested positive for COVID-19. One came home from school Monday unable to smell, she said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His mother took him for testing and got results the next day that showed he had been infected with the coronavirus, Franks said. By then, his brother was exhibiting symptoms and was also tested. His positive results were returned Wednesday.

The students are quarantining at home, but both went to North Paulding High on the first day of school last Monday. Franks said the boys’ father notified the school on Tuesday and Wednesday after getting their test results.

“They sat in class all day long with no masks and not social distancing,” Franks said. “And I have no idea how many kids they came into contact with.”

She said the boys did not grasp the gravity of the virus and weren’t encouraged to wear masks in classrooms or hallways by the school. Paulding County’s school system is not mandating masks for students and staff, although it is supplying them for teachers.

Concerns about Paulding’s safety planning led one school nurse to resign from the district last month.

Amy Westmoreland told the AJC on Sunday that she left her job as the school nurse at W.C. Abney Elementary School because she felt the policies — including the absence of a mask mandate — put her at risk of catching the virus and spreading it to children.

“I would never be able to live with myself if I infected somebody,” Westmoreland said. “It didn’t seem safe at all.”

She said she was concerned that remaining in her job would put her nursing license at risk, in part because the district was not providing nurses with the typical personal protective equipment for COVID-19 used by hospitals, such as N95 masks. “This is basic respiratory hygiene, so I would not be in compliance with what I’m supposed to be doing as a nurse,” she said.

Westmoreland said she knows families with children who have health conditions that increase their risk of consequences from infection; while the parents kept their high-risk children home to learn online, they sent siblings into the schools, she said.

Like North Paulding High School, W.C. Abney Elementary was closed to in-person learning Thursday and Friday. That was pre-planned to give administrators time to tinker with safety protocols after seeing them in action at the start of the week.