Cobb parents rally for mask mandate as COVID-19 tensions rise

Parents demonstrate for a mask mandatephotos by Rebecca Gaunt

By Rebecca Gaunt

This week the entire fifth grade at East Side Elementary was sent home due to a high number of COVID-19 cases, and a school board member sent a video filled with misinformation to his constituents. Parents who have had enough met outside Cobb County Schools’ central district office to demand a mask mandate.

Photo by Rebecca Gaunt

Almost immediately, unmasked counter protesters, who had gathered in the parking lot, approached them. One of the first to arrive, a man holding a sign that said “No Face Diapers” told a reporter he had no family in Cobb Schools, before changing the subject to Biden and the “stolen election.” A man in an SUV yelled debunked conspiracies, such as the vaccine containing fetal tissue. Two more brought bullhorns.

Photo by Rebecca Gaunt

Some of the arguments got heated, especially when the counter protestors were asked to step back to maintain distance. Some did, but not all. Supporters of the mask mandate chanted “Protect Our Kids” and “Remove Ragsdale.” One of the pro-maskers came armed with a whistle to drown out the opposition.

Earlier this week, Dr. Janet Memark, director of Cobb & Douglas Public Health, asked everyone in schools to mask up. She also advised parents with children who have respiratory issues and chronic illnesses to keep their students home. So far CCSD has not been allowing students to switch to virtual. The deadline to choose in person or online was in the spring, when the numbers were lower, the Delta variant was not pervasive, and the district had a mask mandate in place.

Photo by Rebecca Gaunt

Cobb County is only in its second week of school and parents have reported receiving multiple contact letters. Students and staff are not required to wear masks unless they have been notified of close contact. With no plan in place to provide instruction to quarantined students, CCSD dropped requirements to quarantine after close contacts the first week of school.

Shannon Deisen organized the rally to encourage the district to bring back the mask mandate from last year, as well as social distancing protocols at mealtimes, and require quarantine after direct exposures.

Photo by Rebecca Gaunt

“They haven’t enforced any safety measures that were in place last year,” Cherish Burnham, mom to fifth grade triplets, told the Courier. She wants to see the mask policy reinstated and a return to social distancing, especially in the cafeteria, like last year.

Board member David Banks rankled parents who reached out this week in support of a mask mandate.

“I encourage you to learn the real truth about masks,” he wrote, pasting a bitchute link to a controversial viral video of Dr. Dan Stock addressing the Mt. Vernon school board in Indiana. Stock’s comments have drawn backlash from the medical community and a rebuttal from Indiana State Department of Health. Stock describes himself as a doctor of functional medicine and sells supplements on his website.

Photo by Rebecca Gaunt

This is not the first time Banks has responded to constituents in an antagonizing manner. When questioned about his refusal to wear a mask in January, he wrote, “I don’t live in fear. Masks do not protect.” His newsletter has also come under fire for referring to the “China virus,” and in 2017, he forwarded an email about immigrants which had been debunked a decade earlier by the LA Times and the fact-checking site Snopes.

When the East Side fifth graders were sent home, the parent notification stated that the decision was made per district protocol.The Courier reached out to ask what the protocol is: what is the threshold for positive cases that results in such a decision and why just the fifth grade when students are mixing in common areas. As usual, the district responded with a blanket statement that didn’t answer the questions.

“Based on our District protocols, fifth-graders at East Side Elementary School will learn virtually August 12-20. When providing high-quality instruction in a classroom is not possible, due to the number of students or staff in quarantine, we look forward to each student receiving a high quality virtual experience through Cobb teachers and the Cobb Teaching and Learning System (CTLS),” wrote a district spokesperson.

Tandi Tyler has a first grade daughter with asthma and respiratory issues. Prior to the pandemic her daughter spent a week in the ICU due to asthma.

“We are doing our best by keeping her in a mask and shield, however, we have been contacted about Covid exposure. She is one that could very likely be hospitalized or worse should she contract the virus. At a minimum we need masks,” Tyler wrote in a Facebook message.

Dr. Usha Anand is a local hospitalist with three children.

“Most of the physicians and healthcare workers survived Covid last year in the hospital through strict masking alone…This is only the beginning. Schools are the epicenters currently and masking works,” she told the Courier earlier this week.

Photo by Rebecca Gaunt

Timothy Lin is a pulmonary/critical care doctor with two children at Mountain View Elementary. In a letter he sent to the superintendent and board, he wrote, “My colleagues, who have children in Cobb County, including the infectious disease physician that I work with, and I are baffled that masks have not been mandated in elementary school aged children where vaccines are not yet available.”

Lin said he works in two different hospital ICUs.

“In one ICU, out of 21 beds, 17 are taken up by COVID patients and in the other ICU, out of 12 ICU beds, 11 are taken up by COVID patients. All except for 1 are unvaccinated – the 1 exception is an 86 year old female who is doing wonderfully. We have patients as young as 24 years old,” he wrote.

Board member Jaha Howard, with the support of members Tre Hutchins and Charisse Davis, requested an emergency board meeting to discuss health protocols before school started but were denied. Superintendent Chris Ragsdale is currently making decisions for the district without board input.

As for the link her colleague David Banks has been sending out, Davis said, “It just goes to show that anti-maskers, COVID deniers, and conspiracy theorists exist right here in our county, and yes – on our school board.”

Another rally in favor of safety protocols is planned for the Aug. 19 Board of Education meeting at 6:30.

Rebecca Gaunt earned a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in education from Oglethorpe University. After teaching elementary school for several years, she returned to writing. She lives in Marietta with her husband, son, two cats, and a dog. In her spare time, she loves to read, binge Netflix and travel.