The photograph, along with pictures of crowded hallways in the nearby Paulding County School District, have drawn national attention, with health experts warning that the lack of masks and social distancing could contribute to the virus spreading. Cherokee requires masks for staff, and neither district mandates them for students, leaving that decision optional. That choice has been supported by some parents in both districts, and this week Gov. Brian Kemp said he would not implement a mask mandate for schools.
Seniors at Etowah High School in Cherokee County posed for the traditional color-coordinated senior photo on Aug, 3, 2020, the first day back to classes in the COVID era. The photo went viral because the students are not wearing masks and crowded together for the shot.
While Cherokee revises its plans for Etowah High, parents in nearby Cobb and Gwinnett counties are pushing their local leaders to open schools. Both districts announced recently that they were abandoning plans for in-person schooling, opting to start the year online, but both then rebounded with plans for a phased-in reopening, starting with younger students. Marietta’s school board on Tuesday also approved plans for reopening some classrooms after Labor Day.
In Cherokee, Hightower has resorted to calls for individual responsibility, saying he wears a mask whenever he can’t keep a safe distance from others.
“We know all parents do not believe the scientific research that indicates masks are beneficial, but I believe it and see masks as an important measure to help us keep schools open,” he wrote Tuesday on the school district’s home page. He made a similar plea Friday, saying “we need to social distance whenever we can, and always wear masks when we cannot,” adding it was a “critical component” to keeping schools open.
Around the same time that the Etowah High photo surfaced online, photos of packed hallways at North Paulding High went viral. The district suspended two students, including one who publicly acknowledged posting one of the photos on social media, but rescinded the suspensions after a national backlash.
State School Superintendent Richard Woods said in the midst of that controversy that school districts have the authority to require students to wear masks.
There is a range of opinion among Cherokee County parents about their schools’ response to the pandemic. The district, which serves more than 42,000 students, let families choose between in-person and online schooling. About 3 in 4 chose classrooms.
Some rallied at the district headquarters Tuesday morning, hoisting signs that thanked employees for opening and thanking the district for giving them a choice for in-person classes, according to Channel 2 Action News.
Others wish it had been planned differently.
“It was a total cluster; they just crammed kids in a class,” said Mandy Birdsong, whose son is a sophomore at Etowah High. He was uninspired by the online learning last spring, and he misses his friends, so the family chose in-person schooling for him because he needed the motivation.
Birdsong wants administrators to reopen more safely three weeks from now, perhaps with fewer students on campus by alternating attendance days.
Birdsong thinks the masks are a challenge though.
“Kids learn from their parents, so if their parents aren’t wearing masks, the kids won’t either,” she said. “I’m going out and seeing 70% of people still not wearing masks.”