If the county health board's intent was to prod Cobb Schools Superintendent Chris Ragsdale into imposing a mask mandate on the school district, it didn’t work.
In a first-of-its-kind presentation to the Cobb school board Thursday night, Ragsdale insinuated that the health board was out to lunch.
“Cases among all Cobb students and staff are down 44% in the last three weeks and have fallen in 90% of Cobb schools. Over 97% of students and staff are COVID free. Yet to hear the data being presented would seem to be the exact opposite of the actual situation,” Ragsdale said, sharing a slide that measured infections from Aug. 27 to Sept. 17.
Ragsdale called out the county's health board, which approved a “position statement” in favor of universal masking and vaccination in Cobb schools, public and private, in an emergency meeting on September 7. Ragsdale, who is on that board by virtue of his position, abstained from that vote, arguing he needed more time to review the position statement.
“Interestingly, in the middle of this graph was when the emergency Cobb Board of Health meeting was held,” Ragsdale said. “Now, you might be asking: 'Well, why wasn’t this discussed during that meeting since obviously the numbers were already falling and falling to accumulate to a 44% fall?'”
In comparing metro school districts that imposed mask mandates with those that didn’t, he argued, “The data clearly indicates a mask mandate does not provide a significant change in the cases.”
The super said he would continue to make decisions based on data, not emotions and politics. He also highlighted the learning loss occurring under the pandemic.
“Addressing learning loss is one of the most important things that we face today as an educational institution," he said. "People, in my opinion and many others, have dramatically underestimated the amount of learning loss that is taking place in the past 18 months and what it’s going to take to catch these students up."
What, he wondered, comes next? The mu variant? The lambda variant? Another winter surge?
“Our staff has not received a forward-looking process from public health officials, so CCSD will be drawing on all available resources to prepare our community for all eventualities,” he said, taking another swipe at the health board.
The three things that need to be known are what is happening, why it’s happening and what is going to happen next. Masks and vaccinations would be encouraged, but remain optional. And next steps would include analyzing data related to contract tracing and quarantining.
“We recognize that students are missing instructional time and days due to being quarantined for something most will never become positive with,” he said, applauding the Cherokee County School District for adjusting its quarantine and contact tracing methods when it had a 70% drop in infections.
“When we’re not presented with a forward-looking process, we will use all available resources at our disposal to come up with exactly that,” he said.
The ball, it would seem, is now back in the health board's court.
ANTISEMITISM RALLY: Speaking to reporters Thursday afternoon, Rabbi Larry Sernovitz said he was encouraged by what he had heard at the Cobb school board's work session that had just concluded.
The district superintendent had announced that students who had drawn swastikas on bathroom walls at Pope and Lassiter high schools had been found and would be punished, and board Chairman Randy Scamihorn said he was working on a resolution denouncing antisemitism.
"I want to be very clear, the district does not, and will not, tolerate hate in any form," Ragsdale said during the work session. The recommended punishment — which he said he could not divulge — was so severe that it would likely be appealed, and some might find it "unduly punitive," he said.
"I appreciate that, statistically, in a district of 110,000 students and 114 schools, incidents like this may occur, and they’re extremely rare in CCSD," he continued. "Regardless, the district refuses to dismiss this incident as some sort of prank. The 18,000 staff members of this district work exceptionally hard to ensure this is an environment where all students are welcome and appreciated."
Positive developments in mind, would there still be a protest in front of the district office at 6 p.m., a reporter asked Sernovitz.
Yes, he said. And there was.
By 6 p.m., several dozen people had gathered in front of the district office carrying signs denouncing antisemitism. It drew reporters, state Rep. Mike Wilensky, D-Dunwoody — the lone Jewish member of the state legislature — and one Hershel Greenblat, a Holocaust survivor who, during the board meeting itself, chatted with Ragsdale.
Sandy Springs’ Karen Colbert, came with her husband Scott, a rabbi, bearing a colorful banner that read “antisemitism = racism.” She had painted it herself and adorned it with stars of David and a picture of Leo Frank, the Jewish man infamously lynched in Marietta in 1915.
“I feel this deeply,” Colbert told the Journal. “People think that because the color of our skin is white that we're not discriminated against. And I myself have been discriminated against in serious ways for many years.
“But it's worse now,” she continued, becoming emotional. “Oh my God it’s — you know, I teach religious school. And when kids — you know when little kids say they're afraid, when they hear stuff in class, they're afraid to speak up because they’ll be ostracized, I go, ‘This is not the America we know.’”
The state representative, Mike Wilensky, said news of swastikas and any portrayals of the Holocaust moves quickly within the metro Atlanta Jewish community.
“Because I had in my family over 40 people murdered in the Holocaust,” he said, “it is something that is very scary to us. … Not only is it important to understand just how such a small thing could be so big, but also (how) certain things have such a meaning that it can cause extreme fear throughout a whole community.”
He too has noticed that such incidents have been on the rise over the past four years.
Karen Melnick, a Cobb resident and retired teacher, said her kids went to Lassiter many years ago. She heard about the incident through her rabbi.
“Antisemitism has been in the school system for 40 years,” she said. “Teachers have to take their personal days for High Holidays. Christians don’t because we’re off for their days. If I want to attend my High Holiday services as a Jew, I have to use my personal time to do that. I can’t even use a sick day, because they know you’re Jewish, and they know if you call in sick on a High Holiday, they know you’re lying to them and you went to synagogue instead.”
Melnick, like other protesters who spoke to the MDJ, wanted the district to reinstate the “No Place for Hate” program it offered in partnership with the Anti-Defamation League, a program it quietly canceled earlier this year.
The ADL, for its part, still found the district’s response wanting after the day’s events, with Allison Padilla-Goodman, the head of its southern chapter, issuing a statement that said, in part:
“It’s disappointing that after multiple antisemitic hate incidents in Cobb County schools this month, the Board of Education has still not indicated how it will respond. ... If Cobb County’s goal is ‘One team. One goal. Student success.’, disciplining those responsible for the hate incidents is not enough, a community-wide response that uses education is necessary. Stating values in a symbolic resolution is only part of combatting hate — we hope that the future actions from Cobb Schools contain commitments to action to achieve those values."
And one teacher shared with the Journal information that had previously gone unreported: last week, LaEla Mitchell, the principal at Simpson Middle School, told parents in an email the school had also fallen victim to the social media trend Ragsdale blamed for the vandalism at Pope and Lassiter.
“To date the instances of school vandalism that have occurred include damage to the 8th grade boy’s soap dispenser, a small pencil drawn swastika in the 8th boy’s restroom, a red powder substance on the 6th grade boy’s toilet and gelatin in the 7th grade boy's restroom,” Mitchell wrote.
SPEAKER CIRCUIT: The Kiwanis Club of Marietta has announced its October speakers. The biggest name will come on the last Thursday of the month — Georgia’s embattled secretary of state.
Here’s the October lineup:
- Oct. 7 — President Ken Reaves’ inaugural meeting; induction of club officers
- Oct. 14 — Joe Turner, mentalist and magician; GEM Awards
- Oct. 21 — Kevin McCorry, Rugby Atlanta
- Oct. 28 — Brad Raffensperger, Georgia secretary of state
All club meetings are held Thursdays at 12:15 p.m.. Prospective members are welcome. Meetings will be held in person at the Marietta Conference Center, but prior registration is required. Contact executive director Pat Huey at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.