Cobb school board chairman under fire for COVID response

coronavirus imposed on Cobb County School District signagePhoto by Larry Johnson composited with public domain image from the CDC (created by LFJ)

By Rebecca Gaunt

Cobb County Board of Education Chairman Randy Scamihorn is being criticized by parents for phone conversations in which he states that kids are “pretty-well immune to [COVID],” that he’s concerned about an influx of infected undocumented immigrants, and that Dr. Janet Memark, director of Cobb & Douglas Public Health, has hung local “districts out to dry.”

Scamihorn prompted an outcry at the Aug. 19 work session, when board member Tre Hutchins requested that discussion of COVID-19 safety protocols be added to the agenda for the voting session. Board attorney Nina Gupta said items can be added at the last minute if time sensitive or if it’s an emergency.

“We have a procedure for that and it’s not an emergency,” Scamihorn said.

Board members Hutchins, Jaha Howard, and Charisse Davis also requested a meeting to discuss COVID safety before the school year started, but without the support of Superintendent Chris Ragsdale or the board chairman, it requires the support of four board members to add an item. Scamihorn has stated that the mask policy is “an operational decision that is made by Mr. Ragsdale and his executive staff who are in daily contact with the local health department.”

In early August, Memark addressed the public via video urging masks in schools regardless of vaccination status. She also said students with chronic disease or respiratory disease were particularly at risk.

Phone conversations

Nicole, a pediatric nurse, said she spoke on the phone with him after the first week of school. She asked him what CCSD was doing to protect children under 12 who can’t be vaccinated. She said he told her that children don’t get it. He also cited a study that claimed masks were detrimental to children. When she looked it up, she discovered it had already been retracted for numerous scientific issues regarding the study methodology.

“He’s just very misinformed,” she said.

Another parent described the phone conversation starting with “If you believe in masks, why don’t you mask your son and he’ll be fine.”

She requested layers of mitigation in the schools like the district implemented last year. Scamihorn responded by telling her he didn’t trust Dr. Anthony Fauci, the department of health, or the CDC – that they are all lying.

“It’s like talking to a QAnon member,” she said. “He said the department of health is saying one thing behind closed doors and telling the public something else. Mitigation will not work. Masks don’t work is what apparently the department of health is telling Ragsdale behind closed doors.”

She asked not to be identified because of her fear that requested services will be withheld from her child.

A third parent spoke extensively with the Courier about her conversation with Scamihorn. She took the next step of recording the conversation, which is legal under Georgia’s one-party consent law. She asked not to be identified for safety reasons.

“Mr. Scamihorn is uninformed about the latest information on a highly contagious virus; uninformed about changing public directives that impact CCSD schools; and should not be in charge of the Board overseeing the superintendent of the state’s second largest school district with over 100,000 students, 18,000 employees, $1.2 billion budget,” the parent wrote to the Courier.

Scamihorn told the parent, “I wouldn’t give you 3 cents for Fauci, Collins, Toomey, Memark because they’ve left me and other districts out to dry. They always say, ‘we can’t tell people what to do. We just tell everybody what’s the recommendation or what we think.’ They never take a stand on anything. Like right now, sure this variant is more contagious but it’s less [unintelligible due to background noise]. Probably it’s more like a head cold that I’m hearing on the national news and local news.”

He said,“Our policy may not fit exactly like their recommendations, but they are aware and they are cooperative in what we’re doing, ok? So we are flexible…Toomey and Memark, they all say things privately but then they say something different because, quote, we’re not supposed to issue mandatory type things… She’s cooperating with what we’re doing….That’s what I’m saying is, she says one thing publicly and then without objecting, we say, look, we would like to try this based on whatever Ragsdale may tell her and she doesn’t say ‘no’ – she’s aware of what we’re doing.”

Later in the call, the parent asked again why the district isn’t following the department of public health guidance. Scamihorn replied, “And I can tell you. I don’t have that decision to make. You can call the superintendent, if he’ll talk to you. And I’m not bashful about this – I told the superintendent today, ‘You don’t want me to meet Dr. Memark. She doesn’t know, she doesn’t want to know what I think of her and let alone Toomey, and Collins, the head of the NIH, Fauci — those, they change with the wind.”

Response from DPH

The Courier reached out to the Cobb & Douglas Department of Health for comment on these statements.

Valerie Crow, director of communications, wrote, “Cobb & Douglas Public Health’s leadership strives to provide local public and private schools with the most accurate information on COVID-19 community spread and best-practice guidance to reduce transmission. We are committed to assuring that this agency is a trusted resource for planning, mitigation, case identification, and contact tracing. Both publicly and in individual conversations, CDPH supports following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) current guidance for reducing the spread of COVID-19 in our schools.

We have no control over whether any local leader accepts or believes our guidance, or the guidance of other local or national health experts. We simply share the public health information and respect the authority that local leaders have to implement this guidance or not implement this guidance in their businesses and in our schools.

Dr. Memark is also happy to go and present to the board of education about the current pandemic situation and give recommendations for K through 12 schools, whenever she is asked to do so.

Late Friday the Cobb County Board of Health put out a press release announcing a special virtual meeting to discuss COVID-19 protocols in local schools Tuesday at 5 p.m.

Masks and immigrants

Scamihorn maintained a friendly tone throughout the conversation but sounded frustrated when talking about the deluge of emails he has received.

Scamihorn said, “And even now, I can show you my emails, where they start off with ‘it’s your responsibility if somebody dies.’ Like God has sent me down here with a magic wand.”

“Well I don’t think he sent you with a magic wand, but he did put you in a position of authority to enforce what the public health people are saying,” the parent responded.

Scamihorn also told her the schools reported low rates of mask wearing, which he said supported his position.

“The problem is that we don’t have definitive answers to do or not do. And the other thing is that we have a responsibility to our students to try and give them the best education. I feel so bad for these kids in these blue states that are missing two years of school. And they’re gonna suffer for the next 40 years…we’re giving parents so many choices that they don’t even realize how good they have it here,” Scamihorn said.

Scamihorn referenced Tufts University Dr. H. Cody Meissner, who co-authored an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal which stated that masks on children are abusive.

Sixty pediatric pulmonologists signed a letter, also published in the WSJ, in response to Meissner.

“In denigrating mask-wearing by children, Drs. Makary and Meissner cast doubt on an economical, effective and judicious public-health measure…there are enough good-quality studies with convincing evidence to tilt the risk and cost-benefit ratios of wearing masks strongly in favor of the benefits to children. The alleged risks articulated by the authors, such as fogging of eyeglasses, severe acne, increased resistance to breathing, increased CO2, masks becoming vectors for pathogens and deformation of facial structure, are far-fetched speculations not borne out by evidence or peer-reviewed publications,” it said.

Meissner also opposes the emergency use authorization for the vaccine being extended to children.

At one point Scamihorn said if the district mandated masks and kids refused to wear them, the school would be forced to suspend too many kids for insubordination, which raises questions about how Cobb enforces its dress code.

“If you come in close contact you’re required to wear a mask for 10 days unequivocally. I keep my fingers crossed that teachers can keep track of who is and who isn’t,” he said.

“Wouldn’t it be easier if everyone were masked?” the parent asked.

“They won’t wear them!” Scamihorn replied, though the district had a mask mandate last year.

At another point in the call she asks Scamihorn what it will take for the district to change course, bringing up the death of Tyler Fairley, the 17-year-old Douglas County football player who died of COVID-19 at the beginning of August.

“Oh, come on now. Let’s don’t go off the deep end,” Scamihorn replied, adding that the student didn’t catch COVID at school, but “somewhere else.” He goes on to say, “people last year called me a murderer because of our three teachers we lost and all three had other medical issues that hastened that.”

“Let’s just keep being flexible, monitoring, and see what’s going to happen,” he said. And later, “Let’s see what another five days does for us.”

He also said policy could change if “something happens like we get an influx of, you know, undocumented migrants, to be politically correct, they’re still illegal aliens as far as this old guy is concerned, but…. Well what I’m saying is anything can make the numbers spike that we don’t anticipate…. Illegal immigrants who are COVID positive, they’re coming in over the border daily by the hundreds.”

August timeline

In the month since the recorded conversation took place, little has changed as far as district safety policies are concerned. CCSD released its latest COVID numbers Friday, reaching 3,744 cumulative cases. These numbers depend upon parents reporting positive tests to the school for verification by the nurse.

Lisa Cupid, chairwoman of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners, signed a declaration of emergency Aug. 19 due to a critical shortage of critical care beds. Marietta City Schools superintendent Grant Rivera reinstated a mask mandate the same day based on COVID data collected in the MCS schools.

The Southern Poverty Law Center issued a press release Aug. 28 indicating possible legal action against the district for not providing for the needs of disabled and medically vulnerable students. The statement from attorney Mike Tafelski specifically called out Ragsdale and Scamihorn for refusing to discuss the issue at board meetings.

On Aug. 30, the district announced it was using CARES Act relief dollars to temporarily give a raise to substitutes, supply teachers, substitute nurses and supply nurses. Ragsdale previously announced a $1,200 retention bonus for bus drivers and monitors in response to the staffing shortage.

On Aug. 31, WSB-TV reported that so many teachers were absent in Cobb that the district launched an emergency plan to fill the void. Members of the district leadership team were informed that they would be assigned to cover classrooms in order to keep schools open for face-to-face learning.

In mid-August, a letter, signed by 240 local doctors, was sent to Superintendent Chris Ragsdale and the board that said, “We are deeply concerned that our district has chosen to disregard best practices for mitigation for the 2021-22 school year despite the current public health guidelines and increasing number of cases, including outbreaks at multiple schools throughout the county.”

Ragsdale has made some tweaks to the COVID policy since school started. Students contacted about close contacts at school can no longer return the next day, masked for ten days, even if symptom-free. Now they are supposed to stay home for three days before returning, symptom free. The district also announced an opportunity to switch to virtual learning in January via a lottery for limited spots. Students must still be enrolled in CCSD to be eligible.

Chairman Scamihorn was contacted for comment, but had not responded by publication time.

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.