MARIETTA — In an emergency meeting two weeks ago, the Cobb Board of Health voted to recommend every K-12 school in the county require masks and vaccinations among eligible students and staff.
Many saw that vote as an attempt to spur a mask mandate in the Cobb County School District, something Superintendent Chris Ragsdale has resisted since the beginning of the school year in August.
Thursday night, Ragsdale swung back.
In a lengthy presentation at the monthly Cobb Board of Education meeting, Ragsdale shared several graphs comparing Cobb schools’ rates of infection with those of other metro Atlanta school districts, some of which have required masks during the pandemic and some of which have not.
In short, Cobb fared no better or worse than districts that required masks, he said.
In the Fulton, Douglas, Cherokee and Paulding county school districts, as well as those in Atlanta and Marietta, per-capita cases of the virus have dropped since late August, the peak of the most recent surge, with Cobb in the middle of the pack as of Sept. 17. The Fulton, Douglas, Atlanta and Marietta districts currently mandate mask-wearing; the others do not.
During the 2020-2021 school year, the school district did require masks. It expected to see far fewer cases than the Forsyth, Paulding, Cherokee and Cartersville districts — none of which required masks — from January to May 2021, as the surge from last winter receded. Cobb was, in fact, in the middle of the pack during that time span.
None of the graphs shared Thursday included Gwinnett or DeKalb counties, large districts that have implemented mask mandates this school year.
Ragsdale said during his presentation the districts shown on the graphs “represent the data in similar and accurate formats, so that you can compare apples-to-apples, instead of how some media outlets have attempted to do — compare apples to, I don’t know, dump trucks.”
District spokeswoman Nan Kiel did not immediately respond to an email Friday afternoon asking what made data from the Gwinnett and DeKalb school districts different from those presented in the graphs Ragsdale shared Thursday.
The superintendent’s presentation was an effort to correct the record after “false media reports” and “some organizations” had misinterpreted or misrepresented data regarding the spread of the coronavirus in Georgia’s schools, he said.
“Unfortunately, we have witnessed, as recent as over the last couple of weeks, some organizations choosing to make decisions based on emotion and or politics,” he said. “While I have been accused of making decisions based on politics, this district has been using data to drive the decision making process.”
Ragsdale also quoted from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study published earlier this year that found masking students had no statistically significant benefit in reducing the spread of the coronavirus. That study was conducted during the 2020 winter surge in Georgia, and found there was a benefit to requiring mask-wearing among adults in schools and to improving ventilation within schools.
But the CDC released on Friday a pair of studies that suggest mask mandates in schools “drastically reduce the spread of Covid-19 among children,” the Wall Street Journal reported.
“This district is not, has not, nor will not be anti-mask,” Ragsdale said. “We strongly encourage mask utilization. We strongly encourage those that are comfortable to become vaccinated. However, we are focused on that being your decision as a parent, as a family, as an employee.”
Masking has been a hot-button issue in Cobb County. August’s Board of Education meeting drew dozens of people who protested the district’s mask-optional policy, as well as dozens of counter-protesters who came to show their support for the district’s hands-off approach.
Democrats on the board have repeatedly asked that school board Chairman Randy Scamihorn place on the agenda of board meetings a discussion regarding coronavirus spread and protocols, to no avail.
At a meeting Thursday afternoon, the board’s three Democrats — Dr. Jaha Howard, Charisse Davis and Tre Hutchins — voted against approving the proposed agenda of their evening meeting, as it did not include a discussion on the coronavirus.
“(COVID) takes up maybe 90% of the communication that I get from parents, and I think it’s appalling that we don’t have it on our agenda again,” Howard said. “And then we celebrate when things go from completely horrible to just regular bad, and send out district communication when there has been no communication from the district for weeks, after multiple requests by at least me and other board members to have weekly communication about where we are with our safety.”
Last Friday, the district issued a press release touting the sharp decline in case numbers in September.
Speaking after the meeting Thursday night, Scamihorn said he had declined to put a discussion on the coronavirus on the agenda again because it would have been fruitless.
“The issue with discussing COVID is, to what end?” Scamihorn said. “Because our audience, our communities say, ‘Follow the health experts.’ … So if that’s true, accepting that to be true, then what is there for us to discuss?”
Moments earlier, when Scamihorn did not allow a question-and-answer session following Ragsdale’s presentation, Howard, Davis and Hutchins stepped off the dais and left, leaving the board’s four Republicans to conclude the meeting.
In an email Friday night, Hutchins explained his reason for leaving mid-meeting.
"There is an unacceptable culture to be dismissive and silence certain elected officials," Hutchins wrote. "I find it quite disrespectful and refuse to be marginalized. With that being said, I am not obligated to passively accept those micro aggressions."