‘The team feels abandoned’: Cobb taking steps to address teacher COVID-19 concerns

012121 Marietta: High school teacher Elizabeth Alentyeu and her husband Raul Candia are among hundreds of Cobb County teachers and staff hold a protest in the parking lot during the school board meeting at the Cobb County School District's Offices on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, in Marietta. Cobb teachers are pressing the district for improved COVID-19 response.  Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
Caption
012121 Marietta: High school teacher Elizabeth Alentyeu and her husband Raul Candia are among hundreds of Cobb County teachers and staff hold a protest in the parking lot during the school board meeting at the Cobb County School District's Offices on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, in Marietta. Cobb teachers are pressing the district for improved COVID-19 response. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Amid widespread outcry after two Cobb County Board of Education members and Superintendent Chris Ragsdale refused to wear a mask to honor a teacher who died of COVID-19, the school district is taking steps to win back the trust of educators concerned about being in a classroom during the pandemic.

The district on Tuesday hosted an hour-long virtual town hall for its employees with officials from Cobb & Douglas Public Health Department to discuss coronavirus and address “frequently asked questions from school staff,” said spokeswoman Nan Kiel. A weekly Facebook Live event will also be held by a school board member as a means to offer parents and the public more information.

Cobb school board member Charisse Davis said the district’s persistent refusal to have public conversations about COVID-19 and the fears some teachers have about teaching in the classroom while community transmission remains high have propelled them to publicly proclaim they are feeling “flat out scared.”

“People don’t think you care and ... that should be a moment of reflection,” she said of Ragsdale. “We are all supposed to be part of the team and right now, the team feels abandoned.”

The town hall meeting with health officials drew 600 attendees, with more than 150 asking questions of health officials, according to Valerie Crow, spokeswoman with Cobb & Douglas Public Health.

At the meeting, which was closed to the general public, the health department’s Deputy Director Dr. Lisa Crossman and Dr. David Jackson, a preventative medicine specialist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, provided an update on virus transmission and vaccination efforts in Cobb County.

ExploreCOVID-19 cases reported at metro Atlanta public schools

The town hall was held a week after Ragsdale and other metro Atlanta superintendents sent Gov. Brian Kemp a letter asking educators be moved up on the state’s vaccination plan.

The superintendent unveiled plans for the town hall and the superintendents’ letter in a districtwide email sent to employees.

“We all know the importance of face-to-face instruction for our students, but I know that educators cannot keep giving without having access to the necessary tools for remaining safe for instruction,” Ragsdale told Cobb schools employees.

Kemp’s communications office has said the governor will expand access to educators once the state’s vaccine supply improves.

In another outreach effort, Cobb schools will use its Facebook page to communicate directly to employees, students, parents and community members. Each week, Board Chairman Randy Scamihorn will host “The Chairman’s Brief,” which will “take a deep dive, providing insight and information into what is happening in the district,” according to its Facebook page. The first episode aired Wednesday evening.

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

Connie Jackson, president of the Cobb County Association of Educators, said she appreciates the effort toward more open communication with teachers and other employees. However, she said these things should have been done months ago.

“Why did it take this long?” she asked. “Why did it have to cost three people their lives?”

Cobb schools has been rocked by the deaths of three teachers — Patrick Key, Dana Johnson and Cynthia Lindsey — from COVID-19. Key died on Christmas Day while Johnson and Lindsey both lost their battles on Jan. 21.

Their deaths came after teachers had pressed the school district for weeks to move to remote-only learning due to the surge in COVID-19 cases. Teachers also asked that once classrooms reopen, the district offer them the option of teaching virtually or in the classroom. Cobb teachers currently are required to teach in-person and must simultaneously teach students who are learning from home.

January 22, 2021 Cobb County: Flowers were laid side by side along the school sign in front of Kemp Elementary School at 865 Corner Road in Powder Springs on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021 where Dana Johnson, a first-grade teacher who worked at Kemp Elementary School, died last Thursday morning, six weeks after she was admitted to the hospital with COVID-19, said Principal Billy Pritz. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Caption
January 22, 2021 Cobb County: Flowers were laid side by side along the school sign in front of Kemp Elementary School at 865 Corner Road in Powder Springs on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021 where Dana Johnson, a first-grade teacher who worked at Kemp Elementary School, died last Thursday morning, six weeks after she was admitted to the hospital with COVID-19, said Principal Billy Pritz. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Those concerns came to a head at the Jan. 21 board meeting when Cobb school counselor Jennifer Susko asked Ragsdale and members David Chastain and David Banks to wear a mask made in honor of Key, who taught art at Hendricks Elementary School. The trio’s refusal to put on the masks ignited swift outrage and condemnation from across the country. It was the subject of nationwide news stories, including those by USA Today and The Washington Post.

Heather Welch, Patrick Key’s niece, told the AJC that their indifference was “shameful” because it occurred hours after Johnson and Lindsey both died of COVID-19.

“They showed me how little they care,” she said. “I believe that being an effective leader is to lead with empathy and by example; they are incapable of doing either. This one moment spoke volumes about who they are as people and as leaders.”

Johnson taught first grade at Kemp Elementary School and Lindsey was a paraprofessional at Sedalia Park Elementary School. They both died Jan. 21 after they were hospitalized with COVID-19. Two other teachers, Jacob Furse of Garrett Middle School and Julia Varnedoe of Mount Bethel Elementary School, also contracted the novel coronavirus, but are recovering.

Patrick Key, right, died Dec. 25 following a month-long battle with COVID-29. Credit: WSB-TV
Caption
Patrick Key, right, died Dec. 25 following a month-long battle with COVID-29. Credit: WSB-TV

Scamihorn told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday that the district has added safety measures in schools and classrooms that benefit both teachers and students, including plexiglass dividers that can be installed on desks, hand sanitization stations and personal protective equipment.

He also said the district will soon install $12 million worth of hand-rinsing devices and a product that uses low-voltage ultraviolet light to sterilize classrooms in its 67 elementary schools.

“The research has said that schools are not high-risk for teachers,” he said. “It’s very low risk.”

ExploreOPINION: What is wrong with leadership of Cobb schools?

The director of the CDC said Wednesday that American schools can safely reopen even if teachers haven’t been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

In-person learning is also low risk for youth, said Cobb parent Brenda Lloyd, who has two children enrolled in district schools. She told the AJC that keeping classrooms closed places children at a higher risk of succumbing to suicide and being abused at home.

She also pointed to one study released last month by the Journal of the American Medical Association that said there’s little evidence that schools “have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.” The report said opening classrooms can be safe if mitigation efforts recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are followed, including wearing masks, socially distancing classrooms common areas, improved ventilation and offering hybrid learning options.

ExploreMetro school board members want Kemp to prioritize COVID-19 vaccine for teachers

Jackson said along with communicating more directly with educators and other employees, Cobb schools should accommodate educators who want to teach remotely to students learning from home. This hard stance, she said, is resulting in the district “losing out on good educators.”

“I don’t want to see us after we are able to go back to some kind of normal that we have lost lots of teachers because there wasn’t some way they could have taught virtually or district could have just make accommodations for those people,” she said.