After a photo of crowded hallways in a Paulding County high school sparked criticism of the COVID-19 precautions taken last week by the district west of Atlanta, the superintendents of the Hall and Gainesville school districts told The Times students would not be disciplined for sharing such a photo, as was the case in Paulding.
North Paulding High School in Dallas captured the attention of national news outlets, including BuzzFeed News and The Washington Post, when photos surfaced showing a hallway crowded with maskless students during a class change.
The students who posted the photos on social media were initially suspended — a decision that was later rescinded by the Paulding County Board of Education — but local superintendents say the students should never have been punished for their actions.
“I don’t think we’ve ever, nor will we ever while I’m here, discipline kids for taking a picture of something that they may be concerned about,” said Will Schofield, superintendent for the Hall County School District. “I certainly would hope they’d bring it to us and ask us about it, but that’s one of the beautiful things about our country, is you’ve got some free speech rights. … We wouldn’t be disciplining kids for that.”
Jeremy Williams, superintendent for the Gainesville City School System, echoed Schofield’s sentiment.
“I don’t want to penalize kids for sharing something that we could possibly address,” Williams said. “I think too many times, we can be dismissive of kids, and they have anxieties as well when they’re coming to school. If they feel like they’re in an unsafe position, then we need to know about it, and we need to be able to take some actions to make it safer.”
Both superintendents did say, however, they would prefer students to bring concerning images like the ones shared at North Paulding to administrators rather than share them on social media, so the issues can be addressed as quickly as possible.
With classes set to begin virtually on Aug. 17 for Gainesville City schools and in a hybrid model Aug. 24 for Hall schools, Williams and Schofield said their districts have been proactive in preventing situations like the one captured at North Paulding from being replicated locally. Both have adjusted their in-person start schedules, with Gainesville choosing to go remote for the first three weeks of school and Hall County returning with a hybrid schedule for the first two weeks of classes.
The school systems have also instituted mask requirements for all students, a measure that the superintendents say will be enforced when students return to school buildings.
Mask mandates in schools have been a point of controversy of late. Paulding County School District Superintendent Brian Otott wrote in a letter addressed to that community that wearing a mask is “a personal choice” adding that “there is no practical way to enforce a mandate to wear them.”
Williams said Gainesville schools do not yet have a specific protocol for what to do when a student arrives at school without a mask, but all Gainesville schools will have disposable masks available in administrative offices, and teachers have been instructed to send maskless students there to pick one up. He said encounters with students without masks would be slanted toward educating the student on why a mask is important rather than disciplining them.
“It’s got to come more from the angle of why we’re wearing a mask,” he said. “Not saying that there wouldn’t be some type of disciplinary action down the road depending on the level of defiance or disagreement or something like that. But we have to come at it from the angle of safety, not from the angle of discipline.”
Schofield said Hall schools would also be stocked with plenty of masks to hand out to students who do not have them, adding that the district would not be accommodating “conscientious objectors” to the mask policy.
“If it just comes down to ‘I’m not wearing a mask,’ then we need to call mom and dad and get them in and say it’s probably time for you to consider the digital option,” he said. “Because we’re going to keep each other safe. We will wear masks.”
Both superintendents also said they have plans in place to prevent crowding in hallways during class changes, as has become a concern since the North Paulding photo.
In the Gainesville school system, elementary school students already change classrooms infrequently, Williams said, and switches are limited to all the students of one classroom moving to a nearby room to learn a new subject, making it “a very small transition,” according to Williams. Middle school students will be split into various “teams” per grade level and will be released in a staggered fashion to prevent students from bunching up in hallways.
At the high school level, Williams said Gainesville High’s multiple buildings and large outdoor areas would help ease crowding during class changes, though he did add that the school system does not yet have a perfect plan for managing transitions.
“We don’t have the exact solution right now,” he said. “But fortunately, we do have the outside, where most of our students immediately go to when they’re transitioning classes, because they do have to go from one building to the next.”
In Hall schools, class changes will be handled on a school-by-school basis, according to Schofield, “because our buildings are so radically different from each other,” though some fundamental procedures will be observed in all schools.
Hallways will have one-way traffic “whenever we can,” and class dismissal will be staggered to reduce the number of students in the hallways at once. Schofield said the plan is for half the students in a class to be dismissed, and while they are walking to their next class, teachers will wipe down recently vacated desks to keep rooms as sanitized as possible. Once students from the first wave arrive in their new classroom, the second half of classes will be dismissed.
Schofield said teachers would be able to work out the kinks in the plan during the first two weeks of hybrid-schedule school when they are dealing with much smaller class sizes.
Both superintendents acknowledged that their school districts would not handle every single situation perfectly. Williams said students’ constant use of smart phones is likely to catch any mistakes made by students or faculty at schools, even if the issues are not widespread.
“(Taking pictures) is just what middle schoolers and high schoolers do with their phones,” Williams said. “It may be a five-second video of somebody taking off their mask, but it may be presented as if nobody’s wearing a mask. We’re trying to balance that.”
Schofield said while he doesn’t expect every school return to go off without a hitch, the positive effects public schools have on kids’ lives cannot be overstated. He mentioned situations where students received medications and Division of Family and Children Services referrals from schools as reasons for why returning is important.
Some mistakes will be made, Schofield said, but Hall schools will be taking every measure possible to keep them as small and infrequent as possible.
“We will not do everything perfect. We will continue to talk about 200% accountability,” he said, referring to school policies of personal accountability and keeping one another accountable. “We’ll continue to believe that there are 28,000 kids, a lot of them who need the protective factors that public school has to offer them. And we also will continue to believe that we’ve got to do everything we can to try to keep people safe. Anybody who thinks that’s a yes or no, a right or wrong, a zero or one situation, I just don’t think they’re living in reality.”