OPINION: School reopenings weren’t picture perfect, but don’t blame kids

Blame adults for failing to make the hard choices that will keep students and communities safer
Effingham County High School students are shown changing classes, in a crowded hallway, on Aug. 5, 2020, the first day of school. Masks are not required for students in Effingham County, but are strongly recommended.  Rick Lott for SavannahNow.com

Credit: Rick Lott for SavannahNow.com

Credit: Rick Lott for SavannahNow.com

Effingham County High School students are shown changing classes, in a crowded hallway, on Aug. 5, 2020, the first day of school. Masks are not required for students in Effingham County, but are strongly recommended. Rick Lott for SavannahNow.com

We send our kids to school with the equivalent of a documentary film crew tucked in their back pockets — their smartphones. And last week, students used those phones to document the opening of school in several Georgia counties.

It wasn’t always a pretty picture.

Crowded hallway scenes of students without masks at North Paulding High School led to global consternation, leading the principal to warn students via the PA system of posting “anything negative” without administration permission. “There will be consequences for those students or anyone who sends out those pictures,” warned the principal.

Don’t blame the students for showing the reality of reopening schools, something they are allowed to do under the First Amendment. Even Richard Woods, the state school superintendent who usually gives districts wide berth, reminded schools “to operate with transparency, and to ensure that students and staff are not penalized for expressing their concerns.”

Blame the governor for failing to impose a mask mandate even as more Georgians contract COVID-19, and for doubling down this week by ruling out requiring a mask mandate for public schools. Blame the Georgia Department of Public Health for refusing to buck the governor. Blame boards of education and superintendents, who have the latitude to enact their own mandates, for declining to do so, despite the evidence that face coverings limit the spread of the virus.

Blame parents who defend the Paulding photos and similar troubling images because they want a “normal” high school experience for their kids, including crowded hallways, football games and first-day senior photos, like the one at Cherokee County’s Etowah High School, where close to 100 kids without masks stood shoulder-to-shoulder.

At a meeting earlier this summer, Paulding school board Chair Jeff Fuller said, “I want us as a school district in Paulding County to lead the way in an absolute normal return to normal activities.”

Unfortunately, these are not normal times; these are difficult and dangerous times, especially in Georgia, where the coronavirus continues to rage. Yes, young children are less likely to contract the virus, and have milder cases, but the risks are higher for teens.

In fact, North Paulding High School closed Monday and Tuesday for deep cleaning after six students and three staffers were diagnosed with COVID-19. “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,” wrote Superintendent Brian Otott in a letter to parents. (There are now dueling petitions underway in Paulding, one to mandate masks and the other to keep them voluntary.)

A new national report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association shows 97,078 new child cases of COVID-19 reported from July 16 to July 30, a 40% increase.

Even infectious disease specialists who endorse restarting school for the sake of children’s mental health and the economy point out that we don’t know what happens in school settings since classrooms shut down in March when the virus was only gaining a foothold. Little research has been done on the coronavirus and children in congregate.

Those same experts also note that schools are not isolated havens from the rest of the community; if there is COVID-19 in your county, it will seep into your schools. That’s why Cherokee and Paulding, the canaries in the coal mine due to their early openings last week, saw cases on the first day of school that led to quarantines. The infections strolled into schools amid the new backpacks, freshly sharpened pencils and fervent hopes for the best.

I understand those hopes. I am sending my own children back to colleges where almost all their classes will be online. I hate that my son’s senior year at Georgia Tech will largely be spent in his dorm cubicle. I hate that my daughter’s favorite class at the University of Georgia, chorus, has been canceled because a theater full of singers poses high risk of spread.

Over the past few days, teachers in 31 Georgia counties have sent me notes about exposures in their schools and confirmed COVID-19 cases among their colleagues. In most of these districts, the schools haven’t even opened yet. These exposures are occurring during teacher preplanning.

What will happen, these teachers want to know, when students flood buildings, most of them without masks? And what will happen when the Goliath of Georgia districts, Gwinnett County, begins to phase in the return of its 180,000 students later this month?

Students want to be back. Many of the students in those photos from Paulding County are thrilled to be in school again. Much of the national commentary overlooks that the majority of Paulding parents chose to enroll their kids in face-to-face classes. And there are teachers happy to return, missing their students.

But we need to make it safe and we need to allow both teachers and students to share any and all concerns, including through social media.

“The Supreme Court has strongly said that students have a right to speak out on public policy and social issues,” said Gordon Danning, an attorney and former high school teacher and now a youth free expression program coordinator at the National Coalition Against Censorship. And what greater issue faces students right now, asked Danning, than COVID-19? “This is the most important public policy issue facing the country right now.”

As a longtime teacher, Danning has sympathy for principals. “Every problem people have, they want to come to you. Yes, these student posts may make the school look bad in some people’s eyes, but that goes with the territory,” he said. “My advice to principals: respect the free speech rights of their students.”

And Danning had some additional advice after seeing the crowded hallway photos coming out of Georgia schools: “It would be nice if more kids were wearing masks.”