First back-to-school photos to hit the internet look deeply concerning

Aug. 5, 2020

Schools have reopened in parts of Georgia, giving people around the country their first glimpses of what in-person classes might look like this year. Already this week, several photos have emerged showing crowded hallways with students packed shoulder-to-shoulder and the majority of students without masks. The troubling images have many people questioning the school’s safety guidelines and wondering if it’s actually going to be possible to keep kids safe from COVID-19.

Yesterday, photos and video said to be from the first few days at North Paulding High School in Paulding County, Georgia, made the rounds on Twitter. The caption on the video notes that the crowding is present even with a split dismissal policy in place to reduce the number of students in the halls.

The posts were shared by a Twitter user named Hannah, who is a 10th grader at the school according to WSB-TV, and they sparked outrage on social media. One parent on Twitter who says she lives in the county finds the photos circulating especially appalling because the district notified families that multiple football players had tested positive for COVID-19 less than 24 hours before the first day of school.

The images even prompted a response from the district’s superintendent, Dr. Brian Otott. In an email to parents obtained by WSB-TV and shared on social media by several people, Otott admits the crowded hallway photo “does not look good” but assures parents that staff will continue to make adjustments to keep students safe.

“Under the COVID-19 protocols we have adopted, class changes that look like this may happen, especially at a high school with more than 2,000 students,” Otott writes in the email. He also informs parents that the district serves more than 30,000 students and says there is “no practical way” to enforce a mask mandate.

The Paulding County School District isn’t the only district in Georgia facing issues with school crowding and students opting out of wearing masks. In response to the photos from Paulding County, another teen shared this image, claiming it’s from River Ridge High School in Cherokee County, Georgia.

WFAA news out of Dallas shared two other photos from Cherokee County that they received via email. “I love social distancing” is written across one of the images that shows a huge crowd of kids being funneled through an outdoor walkway and definitely not standing six feet apart.

In July, the Georgia Department of Education outlined guidelines and policies to ensure a safe return to school. Their suggestions include regular monitoring for symptoms, the use of hand sanitizer by students and staff, advanced cleaning protocols and establishing protocols to isolate students or staff who become infected. The guidelines also strongly recommend the use of masks, but they are not mandated at this time.

The incubation period for the novel coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is between two and 15 days, so it could be weeks before officials know how the start of school is impacting the number of COVID-19 cases in the state. 

Already, there are scattered reports of quarantines and exposures. At least 20 students and one teacher have been asked to quarantine just two days into the new school year at Sixes Elementary in Cherokee County. They were exposed to a second grader who tested positive for the virus, according to Fox 5 Aatlanta. In the Gwinnett County School District, one of Georgia’s largest districts, 260 staff members have either tested positive for COVID-19 or been exposed to the virus, and they have not even welcomed students back to class yet.

The news coming out of Georgia presents serious questions for parents and school administrators planning for in-person school reopenings in other parts of the country. These images make it clear that even if safety protocols are recommended or in place, not every student will follow them, and unforeseen issues, like hallway crowding, could continue to put students and staff at risk. A safe return to school is the hope for many parents and teachers, but right now it seems there is simply no way to guarantee that.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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