State finds Cobb County School District violated disability rights during pandemic

Powder Springs resident Kari Robinson with her sons Camden and LawsonPowder Springs resident Kari Robinson with her sons Camden and Lawson (photo provided by Kari Robinson)

By Rebecca Gaunt

For Kari Robinson, learning that her son’s asymptomatic classmate, who had tested positive for COVID-19 and was attending school without a mask, marked the last straw before she pulled her two kids with high-risk medical conditions out of Hillgrove High School.

After reaching out to everyone in the district she could think of and finding little help, she filed a complaint with the Georgia Department of Education, stating that the lack of COVID-19 safety protocols was preventing her two boys from accessing their education. She wasn’t very hopeful about the results. When the state ruled that the district had violated disability education law with the process used to move her children to a virtual setting, it took her by surprise.

“I was absolutely shocked with the rulings. I loved the investigator, but she repeatedly told me how [the state] can’t mandate masks and didn’t want me to get my hopes up,” Robinson said

The entire family is at high risk for COVID-19 complications. Camden and Lawson live with eosinophilic esophagitis, asthma, frequent bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia, and chronic sinusitis. They also have compromised immune systems from the steroids they take to treat their conditions.

Robinson, who had open-heart surgery three years ago, took leave from her job in a pediatric office early in the pandemic, eventually quitting when the practice stopped requiring masks last summer.

It was only four days into the school year when she decided attending school in person was too dangerous for the family. Robinson said one teacher had already stated she wouldn’t be cleaning desks between classes because it was no longer required. And since the district had dropped the mask mandate over the summer, many students and staff were opting not to wear one.

“I stayed in Cobb County because I love the schools, and now I am just regretting that decision,” she said.

Robinson chose the in-person learning option in the spring. COVID-19 case numbers were dropping at the time and Cobb County School District was largely following CDC safety guidelines. Her sons spent last year doing virtual learning, but she said they are very social and it was really hard on them. Camden and Lawson, now both sophomores, wanted to go back to school.

It was a decision she labored over. On March 29, she emailed her sons’ case manager, writing, “It’s really hard to make that choice so early and without all the information. My question to you is if they sign up for f2f and say…masks aren’t allowed so I want to pull them. Is that something I could do…?”

The case manager said she didn’t know but would look into it. Robinson never heard back.

With vaccinations on the horizon, Robinson ultimately decided to let the boys go back. After the window for choosing virtual or in-person learning closed, the district dropped the mask mandate and the delta variant surged. While some parents rejoiced at the decision to not require masks this fall, others panicked.

The district declined to reopen the option for virtual learning. As the school year began, many parents were frustrated to learn that masks weren’t the only mitigation protocol that was gone. The cafeterias were crowded, there was little social distancing in classrooms, and quarantine protocols were relaxed.

Robinson reached out to the boys’ case manager on Aug. 8 to ask if holding an IEP meeting might lead to a solution for her COVID concerns. The manager said she didn’t think that would help, but suggested contacting the school counselor and the Cobb County Special Education department. She was then directed to contact the head of special education at Hillgrove.

Robinson emailed Dr. Sharon Dixson, Hillgrove’s student support services administrator on Aug. 9 asking for help. She said she also tried calling, but her calls were directed to the wrong person.

On Aug. 10, Robinson emailed Superintendent Chris Ragsdale and the seven board members requesting reinstatement of CDC protocols, describing the health concerns of the family in detail. Hillgrove is in Brad Wheeler’s district. The only person who responded was Charisse Davis.

Robinson reached out to one of the school counselors at Hillgrove on Aug. 11. The counselor responded quickly and helped move the boys into the virtual option, though Robinson was still hopeful that the Aug. 12 board meeting would include a pivot from Ragsdale on the optional mask stance in light of the entire fifth grade at East Side Elementary being sent home because of an outbreak. When that didn’t happen, she accepted the virtual option. The boys had missed a week of school by this point.

Camden and Lawson began taking classes through Cobb Virtual Academy and Georgia Virtual School. According to mom, the teachers post work at the beginning of the week with due dates. There is no live instruction.

She filed the complaint with the Georgia Department of Education on Aug. 31 alleging violations of the LRE (least restrictive environment) requirement and FAPE (free appropriate public education).

In her complaint, Robinson consented to participating in the mediation process with the district. Legally, she cannot share what was discussed.

In a letter dated Oct. 29, the GaDOE notified the district of its findings, writing, “Despite the parent’s expressed concern and request to discuss [appropriate preventative and risk-reducing strategies} in an IEP Team meeting, no meeting was scheduled.”

By moving the boys into the virtual setting without holding a team meeting to discuss their school-related health needs and possible strategies, the district violated LRE requirements (34 C.F.R. § 300.114) and FAPE (34 C.F.R. §§ 300.17 and 300.101).

The resolution from the state requires the district to hold an IEP meeting to “address the in-person school-related health needs of the student” and submit the amended IEP to the state by Dec. 3. The meeting is scheduled for Friday, according to Robinson.

“I was trying to rack my brain for something they would be willing to compromise on,” she said.

According to the letter, the district must also “review and revise, if necessary, its policies, practices, and procedures” and provide them to the Ga DOE. “Upon approval of these procedures, the district shall train all special education teachers and administrators in the school district on how to implement these procedures through documented practices.”

Of the pandemic, Robinson said, “It’s been isolating, depressing, and has made us question our faith in humanity. I’ve lost my job, lost a friendship of twenty-plus years due to our differences of opinions, and lost respect for so many people…Unfortunately, Lawson and Camden don’t have any friends in their position that can truly understand what they’re going through. They’ve struggled with the isolation. They’ve struggled with having to adjust their athletic goals and dreams. They’ve struggled with depression and missing out on so many things their friends are able to do that they can’t. This is not how they want to spend their high school years. No matter how hard it is though, they always have a smile on their face or a joke to make me laugh.”

Robinson is now in discussion with the attorneys at the Southern Poverty Law Center to become a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the district on behalf of disabled students. The SPLC is currently appealing the decision of Chief Judge Timothy Batten to deny an emergency order that would require the district to implement COVID-19 protections.

“​​No one high risk should have to hear, over and over again, people assuring everyone that we’re the only ones who might die. Wearing a mask is a small inconvenience, but it’s worth it to protect others. I just wish others felt the same way,” she said.

Cobb County School District did not respond to the Courier’s 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.