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Students Suspended for Taking Pictures of Crowds in Georgia School’s Reopening

The school’s principal announced this week there would be “consequences” if students criticized the reopening online.

A photo from the first day of school in Paulding County, Georgia.

A high school in Paulding County, Georgia, is facing steep criticism for how it has handled reopening its schools after several images on social media revealed a lack of social distancing and mask-wearing among the student body.

But rather than addressing these concerns or taking precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the district instead appears to be disciplining students that have shared these images on social media.

Hannah Watters, a 15-year-old student at North Paulding High School, received a 5-day out-of-school suspension for posting a photo and a video of the conditions inside the school to her Twitter account, BuzzFeed News reported. Another student, who did not want to be named, also faced suspension for sharing images.

The images, which showed crowded hallways with few students wearing masks, went viral on social media earlier this week.

Watters, who posted a picture on the second day of school to her Twitter account, described the situation as being “just as bad” as it was on day one.

“We were stopped [in the hallway] because it was jammed,” Watters wrote in the caption of her photo. “We are close enough to the point where I got pushed multiple go to second block. This is not ok. Not to mention the 10% mask rate.”

The district has adopted a policy that wearing a mask should be a “personal choice” for students and parents.

Over the course of three days, Watter said that she attended 12 classes, interacting with 300 students during those periods of time. Only 96 of the students were wearing a mask, according to her count.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that schools choosing to reopen their doors amid the pandemic should have students wearing masks or facial coverings “when around people who live outside of their household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.” In classrooms, students should still wear their masks if they’re unable to be seated more than six feet apart.

After posting the photos and video to social media, Watters was called into Principal Gabe Carmona’s office, where she was issued her suspension. Carmona also warned other students against posting criticisms against the district online.

“Anything that’s going on social media that’s negative or alike without permission, photography, that’s video or anything, there will be consequences,” he reportedly said over the school’s intercom.

The school’s student handbook has provisions against the use of cell phones in hallways without authorization from teachers or the school, or recording minors in the school without obtaining permission. However, the school district may still be in violation of students’ First Amendment rights if they’re inconsistent in the enforcement of the measure, such as punishing those who are critical of the reopening standards but taking no action in other similar circumstances.

“From a rights perspective, the question I would have is whether or not the school has exercised similar discipline for other students who have posted anything during the school day, especially instances of people posting favorable things,” Fred Smith Jr., associate professor of law at Emory University, said to The Washington Post.

Watters defended her actions, citing the philosophy of the late Rep. John Lewis.

“I’d like to say this is some good and necessary trouble,” she said to CNN about the matter. “My biggest concern is not only about me being safe, it’s about everyone being safe because behind every teacher, student and staff member, there is a family, there are friends, and I would just want to keep everyone safe.”

Watters said she had not been disciplined by the district before this week.

Parents have expressed concerns over the way the schools in the district have reopened, including the lack of mask enforcement and social distancing. Superintendent Brian Otott responded to those worries in a letter to parents sent this week.

“There is no question that the photo does not look good,” Otott said in the letter. “I can understand if your first reaction was one of concern.”

But he also suggested the images were being taken “without context.”

“Under the COVID-19 protocols we have adopted, class changes that look like this may happen, especially at a high school with more than 2,000 students,” he added.

As districts across the country struggle to develop plans to reopen schools safely, if at all, President Donald Trump has suggested worries are overblown, falsely claiming that children cannot be harmed by coronavirus.

“If you look at children, children are almost — and I would almost say definitely — but almost immune from this disease,” Trump incorrectly stated in a Fox News interview earlier this week. “They don’t have a problem. They just don’t have a problem.”

But children can indeed be harmed by coronavirus. A 7-year-old boy in Chatham County, Georgia, became the youngest person in the state to die from COVID-19 on Thursday. The boy did not have underlying health conditions, according to local news reports on his death.

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