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The Cobb County School District board of education holds a virtual meeting on Thursday, Sept. 17.

In a virtual school board meeting on Thursday, Cobb County School District Superintendent Chris Ragsdale emphasized face masks will be required in schools, and he said the mask mandate is a critical component to the reopening plan.

“That’s a primary part of the plan because it’s a very important piece that allows us to come back into face-to-face as an option,” Ragsdale said. “The latest guidance that came out identified that proper face mask wearing is very pivotal in a school being able to reopen, and that’s certainly going to help us remain open.”

Cobb schools are slated to begin reopening for optional face-to-face learning on Oct. 5, but a pair of board members want to ensure that the face mask mandate is enforceable before students return to classrooms.

Board members Jaha Howard and Charisse Davis highlighted the importance of face masks, and they said the mask requirement should be added to the district’s dress code.

Howard recommended that the board call a special meeting between Thursday and the next scheduled meeting in October “to discuss our dress code policy and safety initiatives.”

The board voted 4-2 along party lines against holding a special called meeting to discuss the face mask mandate and other safety precautions. Republican board members Randy Scamihorn, Brad Wheeler, David Chastain and David Banks voted against the call for an additional meeting. Democratic board members Howard and Davis voted for the special called meeting. Board member David Morgan was not present Thursday.

According to Davis, some individuals in the district are against wearing masks and will look for avenues around the mandate. She questioned whether some families would purposely send their students to school with inadequate face coverings made of material like cheesecloth — an ultra-thin fabric that does little to reduce the potential spread of the coronavirus.

“I just would hate for some to make, frankly, just make a joke out of all of this,” Davis said.

Howard agreed, noting that not all masks are created equal.

Ragsdale said the district’s mask mandate will not differentiate between different types of masks. Schools will have disposable face coverings available for students who forget their own. Face shields will not fulfill the mask mandate, the superintendent said.

After the board voted against holding a special meeting, Howard said he will recommend adding an agenda item about face masks and safety precautions to the October meeting. That meeting is scheduled for Oct. 15, nearly two weeks after elementary school students and special education students begin returning to schools.

Board Chairman Brad Wheeler told the MDJ after the meeting he voted against the special called meeting because Superintendent Ragsdale has already implemented a mask mandate.

“They already have a procedure,” Wheeler said. “Mr. Ragsdale has stated that it’s mandatory. ... It is pretty clear what the expectation is.”

Continuing Remote Learning

While students await the option of returning to face-to-face classes, they will continue learning remotely. The district has received 40,222 requests for devices like Chromebooks or tablets for students to participate in online learning, Ragsdale said. As of Thursday, the district has distributed 36,928 devices.

That leaves 3,294 outstanding device requests. According to Ragsdale, those devices are ready and available at schools, but families have yet to pick them up.

“I’m certainly expecting requests to continue,” Ragsdale said. “And we will continue attempting to meet those requests as well.

Under the current phased reopening plan, elementary schools will reopen Oct. 5, middle schools will reopen Oct. 19 and high schools will reopen Nov. 5. Ragsdale said the community spread must continue trending downward in order for schools to reopen as scheduled. As of Thursday, Cobb county has reported 176 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents over the last two weeks, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

“There is always the possibility that we will not be able to go to the next phase,” Ragsdale said. “There is always the possibility we will have to go back to 100% virtual. I don’t think that that’s right around the corner, but I just want to put that out there that that is always a possibility, and that’s why we are still in close communication with Cobb-Douglas board of health.”

Wheeler asked if the reopening dates could be moved up if county COVID-19 numbers continue to trend down. Ragsdale immediately tempered any expectations of a faster restart in person.

“No,” the superintendent said. “The plan is the plan.”

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