By Rebecca Gaunt
An item was conspicuously absent from the agenda for Cobb County Board of Education’s Thursday meeting – COVID-19.
Despite soaring cases in the county, classes sent home for virtual learning, and Vice Chairman David Banks making national news for emailing false COVID-19 information, there was no mention of the pandemic on the official agenda. At the end of the afternoon work session, board member Tre Hutchins requested to discuss COVID-19 safety protocols at the evening meeting.
Interim Board Attorney Nina Gupta explained that agenda items can be added at the last minute only if considered an emergency or time sensitive.
“We have a procedure for that and it’s not an emergency,” Chairman Randy Scamihorn said to Hutchins.
Board member Jaha Howard questioned Scamihorn’s interpretation of emergency, despite Scamihorn’s attempts to move on. Scamihorn tossed his pen in frustration, informing Howard he was out of order and rude.
“You have no manners,” Scamihorn told Howard.
“Our board attorney is speaking. You can stop yelling now,” Howard responded.
Scamihorn continued to move the meeting into executive session.
“I never voted. I made a motion. The motion was denied. I still have not voted,” a visibly frustrated Hutchins said.
The motion to add the agenda item was rejected 4-3 along party lines.
Board member Jaha Howard alluded to the missing item in a Facebook post Wednesday.
“COVID-19 safety measures did not make it on the agenda for discussion. Agenda items are added by either the Board Chairperson, the Superintendent, or with the support of 4 of the 7 board members. This agenda item did not have enough support,” he wrote.
Adding items to the agenda previously only required the support of three members. Last November, Chairman Randy Scamihorn proposed changing it to four, and the motion passed along party lines, effectively silencing the three Black Democratic members and leaving the four white Republicans with full control of the agenda.
The majority of public comments at the work session were about COVID-19.
Caryn Sonderman, one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against last year’s mandate, thanked Superintendent Chris Ragsdale for keeping masks optional.
“We are truly in a spiritual battle. It is good versus evil,” she said. “What happened to our faith? Where is God in guiding your own life choices?
Megan Dominy’s daughter attends Cheatham Hill Elementary. She asked for safety protocols to be reinstated.
“Several schools, including Frey, Davis, and Nickajack Elementary have classes that were forced to go virtual, and the entire fifth grade at East Side Elementary was emergency exited in the middle of a school day, parents scrambling to pick up their kids with no notice. Because that’s a damning admission from our Cobb County School District. Come get your children because they are not safe here,” she said. “Please help us keep face to face learning by following the guidelines recommended by our own Cobb and Douglas Health Department.”
Ann Maxwell told the board that her husband is a critical care physician and has been on the front lines throughout the pandemic. She was an inclusion teacher before the family’s move to Cobb. She asked that safety protocols be implemented to lessen the stress on families who are receiving close contact letters.
“You are breaking them. It’s time for the board to honor the youngest heroes of this pandemic, our children,” she said.
Deia Seale, a pediatric nurse, said, “You all continue to let willful ignorance guide you. Our 5 to 11-year-old students have no other type of protection as the vaccine is currently not an option for them…There’s already a shortage of bus drivers, yet you continue to place them at risk of dying or having long term side effects, including the bus driver I witnessed collapse two days ago when I picked my child up from school.”
She continued, “Choice works both ways. If you all choose to continue to ignore science, then allow parents the choice to switch their kids to virtual, utilizing the CTLS system you all spent millions of dollars to develop.”
Shelby Carroll, a mom of seven sporting a shirt with Unmask Our Kids emblazoned on it, said she witnessed very few staff members or students wearing masks at the sneak peek event before school started, emphasizing that “It is their choice.”
She was followed by Stacy Efrat, who said one of her children got COVID-19 at the school orientation. The entire family ultimately tested positive.
“The superintendent and the staff know that the pandemic didn’t end in May, but inexplicably they didn’t plan for remote instruction during this school year. I want to make sure this board understands there is no instruction offered to students in quarantine and IEP services are put on hold. The children are expected to teach themselves the material for two weeks and find assignments on CTLS which has become a $24 million bulletin board,” she said.
Cognia conducted interviews this week as part of its special accreditation review, which came about due to a request from the three Democratic members and 50 community and staff complaints. Cognia notified the school district of the complaints in February with this letter, which included concerns about board members adhering to the Code of Ethics during board meetings and a lack of transparency when communicating with staff and stakeholders.
Superintendent Chris Ragsdale responded to Cognia, expressing his disappointment and addressing the listed concerns.
“While the Cobb County School District’s record speaks for itself, we know there is room for growth and improvement in all areas, including effective Board governance. To that end, we have recently appointed a new interim general counsel with deep experience in accreditation and school board governance matters,” Ragsdale wrote.
In April, Annette Bohling, chief global accreditation officer for Cognia, wrote back, “Based on our review of the information contained in the March 26, 2021, response letter, Cognia has determined that a Special Review is warranted.”
Connie Jackson has been president of the Cobb County Association of Educators for 12 years.
“I’ve never seen the debacle that our current school board is – ever. I have seen people not getting along, people not saying their opinions. But I’ve never seen the disrespect, the outright disappointment of putting aside other school board members…we have silenced half the school board members – almost half – because if it was half, they wouldn’t be silenced,” she said during public comment.
This week Cobb County officials mandated masks in county facilities, but the order does not apply to the schools. On Thursday, Grant Rivera, superintendent of Marietta City Schools, announced a return to a mask mandate and onsite testing and vaccination for MCS.
A large crowd with signs and bullhorns had gathered outside the evening meeting as of publication time. People attending a rally for safety protocols were mixed with those vocally opposed to any change in district policy.
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.