By Rebecca Gaunt
An open records request revealed that a survey sent out by Cobb County School District in August received overwhelming support for on-site COVID-19 testing, but the results were never released, nor was any testing implemented.
Stacy Efrat, a member of the watchdog group Watching the Funds-Cobb, filed an open records request last week for the results of the survey when the group was unsuccessful in getting answers from the district. She said she was stunned the district did nothing in response.
The results show that 26,554 people responded. Of those respondents, 79.25% (21,045 votes) indicated they were supportive of the district offering onsite testing.
The online survey was made available through ParentVUE from Aug. 24 through Aug. 26.
Heather Tolley-Bauer, also a member of Watching the Funds-Cobb, said, “We’re deeply concerned and disappointed that CCSD not only withheld the results, they ignored the will of nearly 27,000 stakeholders. They could’ve used CARES Act money to provide this important measure, as other districts did, but chose to spend millions elsewhere.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which is suing CCSD over its lack of COVID-safety protocols on behalf of disabled students, put out a statement in response:
“We are not surprised that the district would choose to ignore and conceal these findings as they continue a dangerous path of putting politics ahead of child safety.
In addition to the claims we raise in our lawsuit, the district continues to outright defy federal requirements regarding facemasks on school buses. A recent Reuters article talks about how the federal government is extending protections on transportation through March.”
COVID-19 safety protocols have been a contentious issue for CCSD. The decision to make masks optional for the 2021-2022 school year was met with enthusiasm by the parents who opposed the mask mandate last year, and derision by the parents concerned about the rise of the delta variant at the beginning of the school year. CCSD closed the window to select online learning before making the change to the mask policy, catching many parents off guard.
“That’s pretty ridiculous, but not surprising, that Cobb County failed to share or act on that information. Why put out a survey and ask if you don’t plan to do anything with the results? Perhaps the results were not what they wanted?” said Emily Jordan, who has two kids in CCSD schools.
Watching The Funds has been critical of the district’s decision not to use any of its $160.2 million dollars in American Rescue Plan funds on improved ventilation and air quality. The group previously filed an open records request regarding the district’s HVAC system and found that it is using MERV-8 filters. The U.S. Department of Education recommends upgrading the HVAC filters to MERV-13 or higher to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Jessica Bergeron is also a member of Watching the Funds-Cobb. She has one child in Marietta City Schools and one in the Cobb County School District. She said the difference in how the two districts are handling the pandemic is night and day.
Her intention was to move both kids to MCS, but her daughter, a middle school student, didn’t want to leave her friends. Since she is vaccinated, Bergeron struck a deal. As long as she wore a mask, she could stay at her school. But her son, too young for vaccination, made the move to an elementary school in MCS.
“From my perspective, I’m very confident about them taking measures to protect children who are too young to be vaccinated,” she said.
She reached out to her daughter’s school in CCSD for clarification on quarantine policy when she received a close contact letter. Since her daughter is vaccinated and wears a mask, whe was unsure if she still needed to stay home for the required three days before returning with a mask. She was unable to get clarification.
“In contrast, [Marietta City’s] policies are very clear,” Bergeron said. “The communication piece is very different.”
“I get a low risk letter for my daughter’s school almost every week, and nothing changes,” she said. “I don’t feel my daughter is as safe as she could be. If she were unvaccinated, there’s no way I would have been able to send her to school…[CCSD has] written policies but nobody enforces them.”
MCS started the school year without a mask mandate, but Superintendent Grant Rivera invoked a temporary mandate in late August when several cases were linked to school-based transmission. The mandate was dropped again in October.
MCS implemented a test-and-stay option in September for students who had received close contact notifications at school so they didn’t miss instructional time. Participating students and staff took a rapid test in the morning, and if it was negative, they could attend school that day. According to district data, 1.7% of those participants received a positive test.
MCS has now updated the guidelines. The district’s website states that the “potential risk for school-based, asymptomatic close contacts is extremely low.”
As of Dec. 6, Marietta City Schools has adopted a modified quarantine that no longer requires a test to stay at school. Asymptomatic students who receive close contacts at school can return the next day but must wear a mask for seven days.
Cobb County School District has also updated its policy, dropping its modified three-day quarantine. Students who receive close contact notifications at school can return immediately as of Dec. 6. They are required to wear a mask for seven days, but the lack of enforcement of that policy is a frequent complaint from students and parents.
MCS will continue to offer optional weekly testing for students and staff as part of its partnership with the Georgia Department of Public Health. Less than 2% of participants have received positive tests so far.
MCS also has a free testing site for all members of the community at its Lemon Street Campus.
The Courier reached out to Cobb Superintendent Chris Ragsdale and the district’s communications office for comment but has not received a response.
[Editor’s note: the Cobb County School District publicly announced in late September that they will not respond to questions from the Cobb County Courier. We will continue to reach out to them because it’s the professional thing to do. We hope that the school district will begin to act professionally in the future — LFJ]
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.