Parents press Cobb schools on mask policy, COVID-19 protocols

People in favor of and against a mask mandate for Cobb County schools gather and protest ahead of the school board meeting Thursday evening, Aug. 19, 2021 in Marietta. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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People in favor of and against a mask mandate for Cobb County schools gather and protest ahead of the school board meeting Thursday evening, Aug. 19, 2021 in Marietta. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Some want to keep the mask-optional policy, others want a mask mandate

Nearly 200 people packed the parking lot outside of the Cobb County Schools’ headquarters to voice their views on how the district should handle a surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the delta variant.

Thursday’s gathering drew people who want the district to impose a mask mandate for students and staff, but also those who want the current mask-optional policy to remain in place.

Some chanted phrases such as “masks save lives” and “masks keep schools open,” while others proclaimed “hear our voice, family choice.”

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Timothy Barouch, who has a child at Addison Elementary School and supports a mandate, said he was so worried that he’s decided to withdraw her from the district.

“It seems like a reckless situation to put kids in,” he said of the district’s mask-optional policy. “What are we gaining from this?”

Pamela Najjar, who has children at Lovinggood Middle School and Hillgrove High School, said she opposes a mandate.

“I want my children in school, but I want them to have the choice to go [without masks],” she said.

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The district recorded 555 overall active coronavirus cases as of last Friday. That’s nearly three times the number reported a week earlier. The increase in cases comes as new reports show Georgia has the nation’s fourth-highest number of children currently hospitalized with COVID-19.

Thursday’s gathering — the second in a week — was timed to a board of education meeting, where several people spoke in support and against a mask mandate. The majority of school board members and Superintendent Chris Ragsdale did not address the concerns.

Board member Leroy Tre Hutchins attempted to add a discussion about the district’s COVID-19 protocols to the evening agenda, but Chairman Scamihorn rejected the request.

“This is not an emergency,” Scamihorn said.

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One man sitting in the back of the room abruptly stood up and admonished the board for its inaction.

“How dare you?” he asked four times before he was escorted out of the room by three Cobb schools police officers. “What about the children? Save the children.”

Late Thursday, Cobb County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Lisa Cupid signed a declaration of emergency due to the surge in COVID-19 cases.

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Cobb’s two-week COVID-19 case number per 100,000 people was 670, Georgia Department of Public Health data shows. Anything greater than 100 cases per 100,000 people is considered by public health officials as high community spread.

While the bulk of the focus has been on parents and their children, teachers should not be lost in the debate, said Connie Jackson, president of the Cobb County Association Educators who watched the protest from the sidelines.

“Educators believe in masks,” she said. “They want to be able to do their job without getting sick or dying.”