By Rebecca Gaunt
Four parents of students with disabilities and health issues spoke with the Courier about why they are suing the Cobb County School District over its failure to implement a mask mandate and other COVID-19 mitigation strategies.
Sara Cavorley, Beth Baird, Tarasha Shirley and Jessica Zeigler said the district is failing to provide their children with a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). By not following the CDC guidelines, which are endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Cobb & Douglas Board of Health, the lawsuit accuses the district of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
The lawsuit, which can be read in full here, states, “While no single existing mitigation strategy is perfect at preventing COVID-19 illness, the best protection for children in schools requires layered mitigation strategies that include COVID-19 vaccinations, universal and appropriate masking, physical distancing, improved ventilation, surveillance testing, symptom screenings, isolation and effective quarantine measures, and contact tracing.”
The Plaintiffs (Names of the minors and their specific schools are not disclosed for safety reasons).
Baird’s 15-year-old son (B) is in eighth grade. He has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and is also diagnosed with anxiety, ADHD, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Due to the steroid regime used to treat his progressive, terminal condition, he is immunocompromised.
Baird also has a son enrolled in a Cobb high school. She was notified the second Monday of school that he’d had a close contact the first week. Though the family tests came back negative, Baird requested an IEP meeting to ask the school to implement COVID-19 safety protocols to protect the eighth grader. B’s doctor determined it was dangerous for him to attend without any protocols in place.
The requests were denied in the IEP, but it was suggested in the meeting that Baird apply for intermittent hospital homebound services (HHB), which would provide him with face-to-face instruction in his home. Three hours a week is often the maximum offered by the district for those services.
She applied for HHB and was denied.
Baird was offered the opportunity to switch him to Cobb Online Learning Academy (COLA) but she said the services were not appropriate for his needs. Nor was she willing to commit him to online for an entire year when he needs face-to-face.
“He can be face to face if the CDC guidelines are in place because he’s been vaccinated and actually has his booster,” she said. “When I made the choice in March of last year, the school system said that they would continue to follow the CDC guidelines, which of course, they are not.”
He is at home, with no instruction, pulling some assignments from CTLS and receiving materials via email from his teachers. According to Baird, his absences are being marked unexcused.
Unlike Baird, Cavorley’s child was approved for HHB services.
Cavorley’s 13-year-old son (C) is in seventh grade. As a baby, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and is currently diagnosed with hypogammaglobulinemia, a problem with the immune system that prevents it from making enough antibodies called immunoglobulins. Chemotherapy has made C susceptible to severe illness and infections.
She even managed to push the district from three to five hours a week of HHB services.
“I wouldn’t budge…I think we basically got it to end the meeting, to shut her up and let’s give her the five hours,” Cavorley said.
At the most recent IEP meeting, she said district staff were very stern about C’s HHB services, telling her it was not the right setting and that it was only meant to be used in extreme cases, not for something like COVID.
However, the district has a history of cooperating with their use of HHB with regard to flu season, according to Cavorley.
“What I tried to explain to them is we use hospital homebound every single year, ever since [C] first started and was able to go to school we have used hospital homebound right around flu season. The nurse calls us, lets us know, hey this is spreading in the school, let your doctor know,” Cavorley said.
Before the pandemic, Cavorley said C typically attended school in person until flu cases started rising in January or February, and then he would finish the year from home.
“If you’re not going to provide a safe environment for my son, at the very least, give him the hospital homebound…which isn’t anything in comparison to what they should be getting in school,” Cavorley said.
Cavorley pulled her other kids out as well. Cavorley said the absences are now marked excused after the school tried to automatically unenroll them after 10 days of absences.
She reached out to assistant superintendent Dr. Ehsan Kattoula about the elementary virtual program. He did not respond to her or the administrator who reached out on her behalf.
Shirley’s 14-year-old son (S) is a ninth grader aspiring to attend Georgia Tech. He has severe asthma and a history of pneumonia and upper respiratory infections. Shirley said she’s had to meet the school bus a couple times due to his breathing issues.
S has had a 504 plan since first grade when Shirley said a substitute teacher did not allow him to go to the clinic to use his inhaler. His oxygen dipped down into the 80s and he turned out to have the flu.
Shirley said she tried to select Cobb Online Learning Academy (COLA), the full-time online option, the day of the deadline for her son but had technical issues. By the time she was able to get in touch with someone at the district, the window had closed. She was told she couldn’t change it by Dr. Kattoula, but that she could look into Cobb Virtual Academy, which is a part-time option for students.
“My daughter had taken one class through Cobb Virtual so I didn’t think it would be that bad, but then we got into Cobb Virtual. It’s that bad,” Shirley said.
He started the school year taking core classes in person and electives virtually. Initially, S estimated about 80 percent of his classmates wore masks, but the number quickly began to drop after just a few days. Then he was assigned a group project in which the students had to gather in close quarters. He was the only one wearing a mask. When he was reprimanded for moving away from the crowd during a fire drill, it was the last straw, especially in the wake of his uncle’s recent death from COVID-19.
“[Cobb Virtual Academy] is not designed for kids to jump in and take a full load of classes,” Shirley said.
Zeigler’s 7-year-old daughter (Z) is a first grader. She has bronchiectasis, a condition that causes the walls of the bronchi to thicken and impair the airway and increases risk of respiratory illnesses.
Z was enrolled in the district over the summer and her mother doesn’t remember even being offered an option for virtual, but if the CDC guidelines remained in place, her doctors said she could attend in person. Zeigler was devastated when the county rolled back its safety measures.
“I pulled both of my elementary kids out because it didn’t seem like you could avoid exposure,” Zeigler said.
The teacher sends worksheets home but she doesn’t receive any instruction.
Zeigler was also told to reach out to Kattoula about the elementary virtual option, but she said he didn’t respond.
“My school board member is David Banks. It’s too hurtful for me to get his responses anymore so I just don’t reach out to him,” Zeigler said.
Banks has been blasted for his emails to parents filled with false COVID-19 information.
Comments from SPLC Attorney Michael Tafelski
During the 2020-2021 school year, when there was a mask mandate in place, a group of parents sued the Cobb County School District to stop the mandate.
Last April, according to Tafelski and documents filed by the SPLC, the district argued in court about the necessity of mask mandates and following guidelines from public health officials. In the district’s filing from April 29, it argued that the plaintiffs trying to get rid of the mask mandate “favor their own interests over the public’s well being, [and] ignore recommendations from health experts at every level of government[.]”
Tafelski also brought up the lack of compliance on Cobb school buses.
“It’s not optional,” Tafelski said. “That’s a separate requirement that the district has an obligation to do.”
“This issue is really an example of systemic racism that we have in the district and I think it’s important to draw that connection…the superintendent and the majority board has really refused to acknowledge either,” he said in reference to last year’s rule change which makes it so that it takes four members, rather than three, to get an item on the agenda.
The three Black Democrat board members have not been able to get several topics, including COVID, on the agenda for discussion. At the most recent meeting, they were blocked from asking questions by Chairman Randy Scamihorn after Superintendent Chris Ragsdale made an unexpected presentation on COVID-19.
The Emotional Toll
The emotional toll from all this has been considerable, the moms said. It has been incredibly stressful for the parents, and their kids and the siblings are struggling, too. Shirley said her son has dealt with depression from losing his friends and school clubs. Cavorley said C’s autistic brother struggles with anxiety over what will happen to C if he gets sick.
“First of all, to be the new kid in middle school is tough, but being the new kid in a wheelchair can sometimes be tougher…he just wants to be with other kids,” Baird said.
The hearing is scheduled for Oct. 15 to hear the emergency motion for the temporary restraining order. According to Tafelski, the judge could order emergency relief at that time or the following week.
The district is required to file a response brief to the motion by noon on Monday and the SPLC will file a reply by 5 p.m. Wednesday.
“We continue to receive a large volume of calls from families who support and want to be part of the lawsuit,” Tafelski said.
Zeigler told the Courier she hopes this action helps bring accountability to the district.
“They got $160 million [from the American Rescue Plan] very recently and what has been done for our kids? Literally nothing. Buying some hand rinsing stations or faulty lights or something? I mean what happened? They have taken away protections that were there last year that they spent money on,” she said.
The district did not respond to a request for comment.
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.