Paulding County Schools Superintendent Brian Otott sought to reassure parents after a photo of students packed into a Georgia high school hallway was shared widely on social media, saying in a Tuesday letter that while the photo “does not look good,” the situation complied with the state’s school reopening policy.
North Paulding High School gained a national spotlight after a 10th-grade student shared what her school looked like around dismissal time, when unmasked students had no distance between one another.
The school opened its doors on Monday to students, who are not required to wear masks or practice physical distancing.
Otott claimed in his letter that the pictures were taken out of context to criticize the school’s reopening, saying that the school of more than 2,000 students will look like the images that circulated for brief periods during the day. The conditions were permissible under the Georgia Department of Education’s health recommendations, he said.
The superintendent also misleadingly cited a state health department document listing the different ways people can become infected with the coronavirus. He claimed that exposure occurs after “Being within 6 feet of a sick person with COVID-19 for about 15 minutes,” but omitted other factors, such as being coughed on, that can cause the virus to spread faster and more directly.
Stephen Kissler, a postdoctoral researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said students were at higher risk of exposure when clustered together. Limiting close contact to 15 minutes or less was “a good rule of thumb,” he told The Washington Post, “but if you have a bunch of students crowding into classrooms without masks, there is still a chance of spread.”
Hand hygiene and the way students interact with each other can become sources of spread in crowded spaces that many people are likely to touch, said Ravina Kullar, an infectious-disease specialist and epidemiologist and spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Kullar said she was concerned after reading the letter about the availability of space and the duration of students’ contacts.
Students in Otott’s district are receiving in-person instruction Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and engaging in remote lessons for the remainder of the week so schools can “assess how things are going,” he said.
The shortened in-person school week decreases the total number of chances to become infected, according to Kissler.
Otott said his schools have received a lot of feedback about mask use.
“Wearing a mask is a personal choice, and there is no practical way to enforce a mandate to wear them,” he said. “What we will do is continue to strongly encourage all students and staff to wear masks.”
Kullar said that statement was “mind-boggling.”
“You get detention for not tucking in your shirt. It is possible to impose certain rules,” she said.
Ottot didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.