With masks optional and virus spreading, some Cobb Schools parents decry inability to switch to virtual learning

Aug. 5—As the COVID-19 Delta variant drives a surge in cases and hospitalizations locally and across the country, some Cobb County School District parents have become increasingly restless over their inability to switch their children back to virtual school.

The district allowed families to register between April 19 and May 2 for either an in-person or virtual school option for the 2021-22 school year. But many parents say they made the choice to send their student back to in-person class during that period when virus cases in the county were relatively low and it appeared things were getting better.

With the announcement last month that masks would be optional in the district, and as Cobb County has once again become a community with a high rate of transmission, many parents tell the MDJ they would have made a different decision three months ago if they knew then what they know now.

Others, however, say they support the district's optional mask policy and have no problem continuing to send their children to in-person classes. Many parents spoke during school board meetings prior to the school year asking for an optional mask policy.

Meanwhile, guidance from public health experts — from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, down to Cobb & Douglas Public Health — recommend that students and staff, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in school buildings.

State Rep. Erick Allen, D-Smyrna, who chairs the Cobb Legislative Delegation, sent a letter to Ragsdale Tuesday asking the superintendent for an explanation behind his decision not to accommodate parent requests, in light of the virus spread and changed mask policy.

The district did update its COVID-19 protocols on Wednesday afternoon, however, while masks are now "strongly encouraged," they remained optional.

'Homeschooling is on the table again': Parents seek other options

Wenyan Yuan is a mother of two Cobb students, a sophomore at Walton High School and a third grader at Mount Bethel Elementary School.

Yuan said she felt comfortable sending her children back to in-person school when she made that decision in the spring, based on the fact that vaccines were becoming more accessible and it appeared COVID-19 cases would continue declining. But the other assumption she made turned out not to be the case, she said.

"The second assumption I made is, regardless of whether the vaccine worked or the numbers ... keep declining, I also expect the district will follow whatever protocol was recommended by CDC and follow the science and do the right thing for the students," she said. "At this point, I pretty much accept the fact that at one point ... in the near future, we will get the virus."

Yuan said she hadn't bothered reaching out to the district to try to get her students into a virtual option, citing the responses she'd seen from other parents who'd tried to do so.

Initially, she said she felt OK with her vaccinated high schooler being in school as long as he continued to wear a mask — he's better protected by the shot and would likely have a mild reaction, even if he contracted the virus, she said. But for her daughter — who is not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine and has a history of respiratory problems — she said she had been exploring homeschooling, since all the private schools in which she tried to enroll her said they were full.

Yuan said homeschooling didn't yet look like an option, given that even her and her husband's hybrid work schedule had gaps of time that would leave their daughter without supervision. And it certainly wouldn't be an option with a high schooler in Advanced Placement courses, she said.

Hours later, after the district updated its COVID-19 protocols, tweaking much of the language, and saying that even those identified as "close contacts" with the virus could return to school the following day, under certain conditions, Yuan told the MDJ she wanted to update her comments.

"I am actually fuming right now. Just sent around emails to all the private schools we are waitlisted on. The discussion of homeschooling is on the table again," she said. "I also want to add that I now feel a lot worse about my high schooler as well knowing that he could potentially sit next to an asymptotic positive person eating lunch with mask off. The sad reality is that his options are limited. Even with the virtual option offered, he wouldn't get the level of service he needed. We are at (a loss) about what to do with him."

Yuan's concerns echoed many of the parents' who responded to requests for comment on the issue.

Matt Head, a father of two Cobb elementary students, said he pulled his children out of Cobb Schools and enrolled them in Georgia Cyber Academy, an online charter school, days before the first day of school.

Head said he initially signed his students up for the virtual option, but "reluctantly" changed to in-person after what he called a lack of communication from the district. But when he arrived at an open house and was concerned over how few people were wearing masks and taking other precautions, he made the decision to pull his children altogether.

"It was heartbreaking telling my fourth-grader that he couldn't go back to the school that he loves and my kindergartner that she couldn't start school," he said.

Since his children's enrollment, the online charter has started wait-listing families "that are in the same situation we're in," Head said.

Other parents who offered their thoughts included local physicians and teachers, who said they feared for their child's safety or for those at home who may be infected when a child brings the virus home. They also questioned how they could make sure their child received proper instruction if they have to quarantine and called for the district to reinstate a mask mandate, as recommended by public health experts.

Lawmaker letter and district response

In his letter to Ragsdale and all seven members of the Cobb school board on Tuesday, state Rep. Allen said he'd heard concerns from several parents over the district's mask policy and their inability to change attendance preference.

Considering the current rate of virus transmission in Cobb, students already having to quarantine after exposure to the virus at an open house at King Springs Elementary in Smyrna and guidance from public health officials that recommend everyone in schools be masked, Allen said, "some parents would likely make a different choice than they made 3 months ago."

In a response letter to Allen, Ragsdale said "because of planning and budgeting needs," the district had to require a hard deadline for parents' choice of school setting.

"I understand the desires of parents contacting your office, and I wish it was as simple as flipping a switch, as some critics suggest; however, the logistics involved in staffing and financing online and face-to-face learning programs for 110,000 students are complex and interrelated," Ragsdale wrote.

Since the school year has already begun, Ragsdale added, making "significant and abrupt changes" in online learning options would negatively impact "virtually all Cobb students and teachers."

The superintendent also noted the upcoming special review by Cognia, the district's accrediting agency, as one "likely to bring unnecessary disruption to our outstanding school system."

"Perhaps the last thing we need are allegations that educational decisions in the District are shaped by external political pressure," he said.

Allen, who is campaigning to become Georgia's next lieutenant governor, said the district's response and COVID-19 protocols were "not enough."

"I stand by the fact that we need to have a public conversation. If we can spend hours in a board meeting to talk about critical race theory, then we can spend a couple of hours of a board meeting to talk about the safety of our kids when they go back to school," he said. "If the environment changes based on a decision by the superintendent, then parents should also have the ability to make a different choice and change their mind as well."

'A herculean endeavor'

Though Allen signed his letter to the district in his capacity as Cobb Legislative Delegation chairman, Allen said it was not a document sent in consultation or by vote with the rest of the 21-member delegation.

State Rep. Ginny Ehrhart, R-west Cobb, however, said she took issue with how that letter was presented. In his signature, Allen does not list that he is "simply" a state representative, but instead signs it in his capacity as chairman of the delegation.

"My concern there, and I believe that is the impression given, is that this letter may have somehow been representative of the opinions of the delegation as a whole," she said. "This was a surprise to me."

Ehrhart said she hadn't heard a single complaint from the "very active" parents in her district concerned about the lack of option to move to online learning.

"I think the issue here is that it is impractical, if not impossible to flip a switch and suddenly offer online learning to the 110,000 Cobb County students that we have," she said. "I understand the concern, but this is a herculean endeavor, and it has not been funded, nor has it been staffed, to accommodate that."

Ehrhart also noted that, as she understands, the district is working on a one-on-one in very specific cases for families with children that may have certain medical concerns to adjust their attendance.

Follow Thomas Hartwell on Twitter at twitter.com/MDJThomas.