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School That Suspended Student Documenting Lack of Social Distancing Goes Virtual

Hannah Watters was suspended for sharing images online showing her school’s lackadaisical approach to social distancing.

Amanda Seghetti shows a picture of a congested hallway at a school in Georgia on August 7, 2020.

A high school in Paulding County, Georgia, is reversing its decision to suspend a student for highlighting the lack of mask-wearing in hallways, which drew widespread criticism last week after her story (and the images she shared) went viral.

On top of that, North Paulding High School announced it would move to online instruction, for at least two days this week and perhaps longer, after several students and school staff tested positive for coronavirus.

Fifteen-year-old Hannah Watters had received a suspension after she had shared photographic evidence demonstrating that in terms of preventing the spread of COVID-19, the school hallways were clearly unsafe. The images she shared on Twitter showcased the high school’s crowded hallways, coupled with an absence of mask-wearing among the students in general.

Watters also shared a tally, over the course of three days of classes she attended, that included the number of students wearing masks versus those who did not. Out of 300 peer-to-peer interactions Watters had with students in those classrooms, less than a third had been wearing a mask.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for schools considering reopening their doors this fall include recommendations to have students and staff wear facial coverings “when around people who live outside of their household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.” Masks should also be worn when in class, if a six-foot distancing standard cannot be adhered to, the CDC says.

Watters was suspended for sharing images of her classmates not wearing masks in accordance with rules in the student handbook that prohibit sharing such images without first obtaining permission from those students or their parents. However, the school could have run afoul of First Amendment violations if it only enforced the rules for actions that presented the school in a negative light, and didn’t enforce them for situations which made the school look good, for example.

Watters said she was “happily surprised” by her suspension being reversed, but added that the disciplinary action against her had been unfair.

“They disciplined me for things that everyone does at that school. The severity of it was unnecessary,” she said.

North Paulding High School also announced that, for at least two days this week, it would revert to an online learning curriculum due to the discovery that some students and staff had tested positive for COVID-19 recently.

“As a result of our being informed of nine cases of Covid-19 at North Paulding High School following the first week of in-person instruction, along with the possibility that number could increase if there are currently pending tests that prove positive, we have consulted with the Department of Public Health and are temporarily switching the instructional method to Digital Learning at NPHS,” Paulding County Schools Superintendent Brian Otott said in a letter to parents.

The school would be closed on Monday and Tuesday of this week, Otott explained. On Tuesday evening, a decision would be made by the district on whether the school would reopen at any point during the rest of the week. In the meantime, Otott said the school would be “thoroughly cleaned” in response to the test results.

North Paulding High School has made several news headlines for how it has handled reopening during the coronavirus pandemic, but many schools are grappling with the same difficult decisions regarding how to move forward with teaching students this year. The decision is not always an easy one to make: starting schools off in a virtual environment can often result in an inequitable educational experience, particularly for low-income students.

Still, concern for the spread of coronavirus lingers, especially as new evidence suggests children and youth are not as safe from contracting the disease as some might believe.

In spite of President Donald Trump’s errant assurances that children are “almost definitely” immune from COVID-19, at least 97,000 kids in the United States tested positive for the disease in the last two weeks of July, according to research compiled by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association.

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