Cobb students’ invention wins state competition; team declines Cobb school board recognition over mask request

Three student winners of InVenture Prize at Georgia TechThe members of Team Recycle: Dylan Merrill, Zoe Diaz and Mia Rhea (photo provided by Kerri Merrill)

By Rebecca Gaunt

Three Cobb County sixth graders won the InVenture Prize at Georgia Tech for the recycling app they invented last year when they were fifth graders at Mt. Bethel Elementary School, but have declined being recognized by the Cobb County Board of Education and Superintendent Chris Ragsdale after their advance request for everyone to wear masks during the recognition was denied.

Dylan Merrill, Zoe Diaz and Mia Rhea won the competition at the school level and advanced to the state competition. They came in first for their division and went on to the national competition.

After doing research on recycling, the three girls realized many people don’t recycle properly. As part of their Target class, with the help of their teacher Ms. Danner, they created blueprints for an app that can scan items to find out if they are recyclable or not. It also includes informational articles and interactive games.

“We sadly did not win anything at Nationals, but felt pride in our work for becoming the first team at our school to ever make it that far. This is why I am so disappointed that some of Cobb’s board won’t wear a mask to honor us for this accomplishment,” Dylan Merrill wrote in an email.

Kerri Merrill, Dylan’s mother, said the invitation came from the district office by way of the Mt. Bethel principal. Initially, they turned it down due to the fact that the board meeting was scheduled on Yom Kippur and two members of the team are Jewish.

On the heels of an anti-Semitic vandalism incident at Pope High School, the meeting was rescheduled for Sep. 23 and the invitation to be recognized and take a photo with the superintendent and board was extended again. Since two of the girls are too young to be vaccinated, the parents requested everyone wear a mask during the recognition.

The principal passed the request along to the district and received this response, which he shared with the parents in an email: “Per District Protocol, masks are strongly encouraged but remain optional.”

Kerri wrote, “We are beyond frustrated and disheartened that the majority of board members could not agree to put on a mask for the five minute photo op with these kids who cannot be vaccinated.”

Cobb dropped the mask mandate that was in place last year over the summer. The three Black Democratic board members have expressed support for masks and the implementation of other mitigation strategies. They have also requested that COVID-19 safety protocols be added to the agenda for board discussion, but have been unsuccessful due to a lack of support from Ragsdale or the four white Republican board members. Last year the board majority voted to change the requirement for adding an item to the agenda from having the support of three board members to four, effectively silencing them.

Chairman Randy Scamihorn and Vice Chairman David Banks have also come under fire for sharing false information about COVID-19 with the public during phone calls and in email.

“I feel so disappointed about the majority of Cobb’s board members for not agreeing to wear a mask to honor my friends and I. Two of my friends (one of which is one also being honored) wear masks and still got the Coronavirus. In my opinion, our board members are not setting a very good example for kids. These members of the board should be able to wear a mask for 5-10 minutes to congratulate a couple of kids, especially when we can wear them all day,” Dylan wrote to the Courier.

Ragsdale and some members of the board were criticized last year when former school counselor Jennifer Susko asked everyone to put on masks for a moment of silence in honor of Patrick Key, a teacher who died of COVID-19. Neither Ragsdale, nor any board members not already wearing a mask put one on.

The parents are working with board member Charisse Davis to coordinate an outdoor photo with Team Recycle.

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.