Cobb Schools superintendent defends mask-optional policy amid COVID

Superintendent of the Cobb County School District Chris Ragsdale defended his mask-optional policy at a board of education meeting on Sept. 23.  (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Superintendent of the Cobb County School District Chris Ragsdale defended his mask-optional policy at a board of education meeting on Sept. 23. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The superintendent of the state’s second-largest school district defended his mask-optional policy this week amid backlash from community members and the local board of public health.

“The data clearly indicates a mask mandate does not provide a significant change in the cases,” Chris Ragsdale, superintendent of the Cobb County School District, said during a presentation at Thursday’s board of education meeting.

Ragsdale’s comments came at a time when 14 metro Atlanta school districts — most with mask mandates — reported a sharp decline in COVID-19 cases from the last two weeks of August through mid-September. During that time, the Cobb school system’s cases also declined from 1,036 cases for the week ending Aug. 27 to 576 cases for the week ending Sept. 17.

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After Ragsdale’s 25-minute presentation, board member Jaha Howard, a Democrat, asked Chairman Randy Scamihorn for a question and answer period.

“The chair is not going to entertain questions at this time,” Scamihorn said. Howard and the two other Democrats on the board — Charisse Davis and Leroy Tre’ Hutchins — then all walked off the dais and left the meeting.

Davis said she left in response to the Republican majority’s continued silencing of the three Democrats, who are Black. The four Republicans on the board are white.

“At some point, it amounts to disrespect,” Davis said. “I came here to represent the people that wanted me to be here, and I can’t do that.”

The Cobb school district is awaiting the findings of a special review from Cognia, its accrediting agency, triggered in part by the board minority’s complaints about policies that eliminated their ability to comment from the dais or place items on meeting agendas.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all students, employees and visitors wear masks inside schools regardless of vaccination status. The CDC released three studies Friday that showed more COVID-19 cases in schools without mask policies.

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People protested before a recent Cobb school board meeting as mask debates continue to heat up. (file photo)

People protested before a recent Cobb school board meeting as mask debates continue to heat up. (file photo)

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People protested before a recent Cobb school board meeting as mask debates continue to heat up. (file photo)

The mask issue has drawn parents on both sides of the debate to hold demonstrations outside of board of education meetings.

Ragsdale has repeatedly said the district is not anti-mask, but that parents should make the decision.

He said he was giving his presentation in response to “some organizations choosing to make decisions based on emotion and/or politics.” He later referenced the Cobb County health board, which earlier this month urged the school district to mandate masks.

The superintendent presented data that said as of last week, Cobb’s cases per student were similar to six other metro Atlanta districts that require masks. One of those districts — Marietta City Schools — didn’t begin its mask mandate until August 23.

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The data presented did not include some neighboring districts comparable in size to Cobb, such as DeKalb and Gwinnett.

Ragsdale also compared Cobb’s case numbers at the end of last school year to those of four other mask-optional school districts: Cartersville, Cherokee, Forsyth and Paulding. Cobb’s case rate fell right in the middle, he said.

Ragsdale said the comparison districts were chosen because they present the data in “similar and accurate formats.” When asked to explain further to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the meeting, he declined. He also did not explain his statement that the numbers were “adjusted for community spread.”