Cobb teachers demand classrooms stay closed after 2 educators die of COVID-19

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Hours after two educators died of COVID-19, more than 100 teachers, students, parents and community members packed the parking lot outside a Cobb County Board of Education meeting to demand the school district continue with remote-only learning.

Two educators — Kemp Elementary School teacher Dana Johnson and Sedalia Park Elementary School paraprofessional Cynthia Lindsey — died Thursday from COVID-19. Patrick Key, another Cobb educator, died Christmas Day after a month-long battle with the disease.

Protesters lined the parking lot holding signs, some of which read “No more teacher deaths” and “How many GoFundMe campaigns?” Some supporters stayed in their cars and repeatedly honked their horns to show solidarity with the protesters during the hour leading up to the 7 p.m. meeting. Protesters also chanted phrases, including “One team. One goal. Save our lives.”

Explore2 Cobb educators die from COVID-19

Jennifer Susko, an elementary school counselor, told the board that the death of Key, who taught at Hendricks Elementary School, “was hard on Cobb educators.” She also criticized an email sent by Superintendent Chris Ragsdale to employees following Key’s death as being “dismissive” of the educator and including several paragraphs “boasting” about the district’s resolve to reopen classrooms.

About a dozen people spoke in favor of keeping classrooms closed. One person spoke in favor of the district keeping an in-person learning option available to students.

Callie Garcia, an educator and mother of three children who attend district schools, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she knows teachers who have chosen to resign because they don’t have the option to teach virtually.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

“That’s something that’s very heartbreaking to me,” she said, adding she’s taught second grade for 16 years.

Along with the three educator deaths, two teachers — Jacob Furse and Julia Varnedoe — were diagnosed last month with COVID-19. Furse, a Garrett Middle School teacher, and Varnedoe, who teaches gifted students at Mount Bethel Elementary School, are both recovering at home.

Last Friday, the district canceled in-person learning this week due to the high number of students and staff with COVID-19 or in quarantine due to being exposed to the coronavirus.

ExploreDeath of a Cobb teacher from COVID-19

As of Thursday, Cobb County had 47,106 confirmed COVID cases, 638 deaths and 2,530 hospitalizations, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. The two-week case number, an indicator of how prevalent COVID-19 is in the community, for Cobb County is 867 per 100,000, DPH’s website shows. Anything higher than 100 cases per 100,000 people is considered by public health officials as high community spread.

Along with keeping classrooms closed until coronavirus case numbers begin to drop, educators who spoke Thursday night want the school system to let teachers with pre-existing conditions teach from home. Educators should be given the option of teaching either remote-only students or pupils who are in the classroom, they said.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Connie Jackson, president of the Cobb County Association of Educators, said teachers showed up to the protest “because they are scared, they are mad and they are angry.”

Jackson also said it’s time for Ragsdale and school board members to talk publicly about COVID-19′s affect on the district.

“Employees are at their breaking point,” she said. “They have been scared for too long that it’s turning into anger.”

ExplorePetition wants Cobb school district to go back to remote-only learning

Cobb school board members and Ragsdale, during Thursday’s work session, did not mention the spike in COVID-19 cases, its affect on schools or concerns expressed by teachers and parents.

Board member Dr. Jaha Howard asked if Ragsdale could talk more about student and staff safety surrounding COVID-19, but the superintendent said he did not have anything he’d like to share. He added that any district changes will be communicated to the public and staff.

“Obviously all of our executive cabinet members are open to conversations (with board members) at any point in time,” Ragsdale said.

Howard said the lack of discussion was “embarrassing” since many parents and teachers have been asking about the district’s COVID-19 response.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Howard and board member Charisse Davis spoke briefly with educators before Thursday’s meeting. Howard said he wanted teachers to know that “we are listening” to their concerns. He said both he and Davis agree that schools “belong to the people,” and that teachers should continue to make their voices heard.

“This has been a heartbreaking day,” he said. “What we are experiencing is nothing compared to the families that have lost their loved ones today.”