MARIETTA — Members of the public on Thursday raised concerns on multiple flashpoints that have plagued Cobb Schools, calling for an end to the district’s mask mandates for students, and in one case, for the resignation of certain board members over an impending accreditation review.
Several speakers mentioned their growing concern over critical race theory, an academic movement of civil rights activists that seeks a more active role of the schools in teaching issues of racial justice and inequity in school curriculum.
The 15 speakers who came to the afternoon work session were smaller in number than the crowd that had amassed to address the issues with the board before its 7 p.m. meeting.
Most of the evening speakers expressed their opposition to students’ mask wearing in schools.
Parents challenge continued masking for students
Of the speakers at the board’s afternoon meeting, about half spoke in opposition to the mask mandate in Cobb Schools that continues for those who are not fully vaccinated. Many more, dressed in “unmask our kids” shirts and holding signs with the same language, addressed the issue in the evening public comment portion.
Caryn Sonderman was the first to speak in the afternoon work session against required masks for students, requesting that the district “drop mask mandates and contact tracing for next school year.”
Sonderman claimed the district was “violating the law” with its mandate, and said tying “mask freedom” to vaccinations was unconstitutional. She referred to COVID-19 vaccines as “gene therapy” that poses more risk to children than the virus does.
Other speakers claimed children under 18 were at little risk of serious illness from COVID-19 and pointed to studies that they did not name, suggesting that wearing masks for multiple hours per day could cause issues including cognitive fog, higher risk of oral problems like gum disease and other physical, emotional and psychological harm. Many called the mask mandate for students “child abuse.”
Some parents, who said they have children with medical conditions that exempt them from wearing a mask, still couldn’t attend school in person and said the online education that unmasked children are forced to endure is unequal to those who are at schools in person.
A lawsuit filed by a group of parents against the district in regard to its mask mandate is making its way through a federal court.
A federal judge earlier this month denied a request from the parents that would have paused the school district’s enforcement of its mask requirement for students, COVID-19 contact tracing policy and quarantine requirements.
Critical race theory unwelcome, speakers say
A father of five children who will attend Cobb Schools next year spoke solely on critical race theory at the afternoon meeting, which he called “a destructive and divisive ideology.”
He said the theory had already begun to seep into the district through diversity, equity and inclusion; social-emotional learning programs; and through individual teachers.
By his definition, he said the theory assumes that “oppression is ever-present and always latent under the surface of things just waiting to manifest itself.”
He defined the oppression as “racism,” “homophobia or transphobia, you get the idea.” He balked at the theory’s claims that bias always existed and was just waiting to present itself.
“Such a social construct ingrained in Cobb School System would corrupt the education process entirely, with CRT co-opting core disciplines that are required to sustain a society,” he said. “All manner of learning would be subject to its deconstructionist, illogical and unreasoned methods.”
Several more people spoke at the evening session, calling critical race theory “indoctrination” and “educational terrorism.”
In the board’s evening meeting, longtime Cobb resident Wendy McCullough said an initiative called ‘No Room for Hate’ was a hidden version of the theory that had begun making the rounds in the district, and she said students were being used as pawns for social justice issues.
The topic has come up in districts across the state recently, for example in nearby Forsyth and Cherokee counties, and state leaders have rejected the suggestion that the theory should be taught in public schools, as they say President Joe Biden’s administration would have it.
For his part, Ragsdale told the MDJ as long as he is superintendent, “I will commit to keeping any theory or curriculum, which is not part of Georgia’s standards, out of every Cobb County School District classroom.”
In a letter to the Georgia Board of Education on Thursday, Gov. Brian Kemp said he’d heard from parents, students and educators across the state “who are extremely concerned about the teaching of Critical Race Theory in Georgia.”
“Like me, they are alarmed that this divisive and anti-American curriculum is gaining favor in Washington, D.C., and in some states across the country,” Kemp’s letter states. “Parents, educators, and local communities here in the Peach State know how best to educate their students — not the federal government.”
Kemp closed the letter, urging the state school board to “take immediate steps to ensure that Critical Race Theory and its dangerous ideology do not take root in our state standards or curriculum.”
‘Letter of resignation’
John McLean, a west Cobb resident and parent of a Cobb Schools graduate, addressed the upcoming special review of the district by its accrediting body, Cognia, saying it needlessly endangered students.
Though Cognia reported its decision for review came after receiving complaints about the district from parents and staff, as well as a letter listing concerns from the board’s three Democrats — Charisse Davis, Dr. Jaha Howard and Tre’ Hutchins — McLean and others at the meeting blamed those board members specifically.
McLean told the MDJ the three were trying to fulfill their political agendas, and he questioned whether the complaints that have led to the review, a start date for which remains uncertain, were “orchestrated.”
“What teacher or parent or staff would know to write to Cognia? Was that orchestrated? I certainly hope not. Maybe we’ll find out,” he said during his address of the board. “I demand for a discontinuation of interjecting politics in the school board, or I will be expecting a letter of resignation.”
McLean told the MDJ before the meeting that he was also a member of the Facebook group calling for the resignation of Davis, Howard and Hutchins, but he wasn’t confident in the group’s ability to move that action forward.
Other speakers, like Kevin Lyon, called the three Democrats “activist school board members” and said Cognia’s decision to review the district showed its motives are “purely political.”
“You should be ashamed of yourselves,” an evening speaker added, addressing the three Democrats.
But some who spoke on the issue blamed the board as a whole.
Heather Tolley-Bauer said the review was entirely focused on the board, “not our schools, our staff, our teachers — you, the board members.”
“Literally, this board got us into this, and literally, this board is the only ones who can get us out of it,” she said. “We are a top-notch district, we deserve top-notch leadership, and I am begging you that you all do the jobs that we elected you to do and that our students and our teachers deserve.”
Though Davis and Hutchins could not be reached for comment as meetings continued Thursday evening, Howard provided a statement in response to the public commenters’ criticisms of him and his fellow board members and signatories on the letter to Cognia:
“I appreciate the public using this important platform to make their voices heard,” he said.