Jan 24, 2022 - News

A year after teacher COVID deaths, distrust plagues Cobb schools

A Cobb County school bus.
A Cobb County School bus in Kennesaw. Photo: Mike Stewart/AP

Educator Julia Varnedoe was hospitalized with COVID-19 in late 2020, around the same time two fellow teachers, Patrick Key and Dana Johnson, were fighting for their lives in the ICU with the same disease.

Varnedoe, who at the time taught at Mount Bethel Elementary School in Cobb County, survived her battle. Johnson and Key did not.

  • Even though she didn’t know them, Varnedoe said she and other educators in the county were touched by their colleagues’ deaths.

Why it matters: It’s been about a year since Key, Johnson and Cynthia Lindsey, a paraprofessional at Sedalia Park Elementary School, died from COVID-19. Some say not enough has been done to improve morale among teachers and repair the Cobb County School District’s relationship with parents.

The latest surge in COVID-19 cases in Cobb County fueled by the Omicron variant — and the district’s delay in updating its case counts — have also reignited feelings of distrust about the system’s response to the pandemic.

Driving the news: Cobb County Superintendent Chris Ragsdale announced this month that the district would not contact trace for all suspected and confirmed COVID-19 cases and that it would change how it posts cases to its website.

  • After not updating its numbers since Dec. 17, the district on Friday only posted the total number of COVID cases for the week of Jan. 14-21 — a change from its previous method of posting each week the number of active and cumulative cases by school.
  • “We are taking the guidance to not focus on case counts,” Ragsdale said during Thursday’s school board meeting. “This is going to be a multi-step process that we’ll eventually see no numbers being reported on (our) webpage after the Omicron variant goes through.”

Flashback: Key, a teacher at Hendricks Elementary School, died Christmas Day in 2020. Lindsey and Johnson, who taught at Kemp Elementary School, both died Jan. 21, 2021.

  • Their deaths shocked the community and led to protests calling on the district to improve their efforts to keep students and educators safe in the classroom.

What they’re saying: Cobb County school board member Leroy “Tre” Hutchins tells Axios that some of the district’s decisions have led to distrust among some parents and low morale among some educators. The district’s latest changes in its protocols “will cost us,” he says.

  • “There has to be a sharing of power and opportunity for voices to be heard without feeling like there will be some type of retaliation,” he said. "There’s going to have to be a ‘come to Jesus’ meeting.”

Connie Jackson, president of the Cobb County Association of Educators, tells Axios that teachers have felt demoralized, scared and frustrated over the last year.

  • A lack of transparency at the district level and varying COVID protocols by schools have led to a general feeling that the system doesn’t have the best interest of educators in mind, she said.
  • “The district’s handling of COVID has put teachers at an incredibly high stress level,” she said. “That has declined some as we’ve had no more educator deaths, but it’s still there.”

The other side: The school district tells Axios in a statement that it factors in “the importance of in-person learning and the frequent changes associated with COVID-19” when it comes to updating its guidelines.

  • “COVID-19 has impacted each our students, staff and families differently,” Cobb schools said. “We hate the life-changing impact it has made on all of us and remain committed to decisions that support safe, high-quality learning environments.”

Board Chair David Chastain also tells Axios that county schools are addressing other issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, such as student mental health.

  • “We need to have our students in the classroom…as much as possible so we can support them.”

Yes, but: Fellow board member Charisse Davis tells Axios that parent concerns don’t revolve around whether their children need to be in the classroom. They want their kids in the classroom and want the district to follow public health guidance and share information it uses to make decisions, Davis said.

For parent Jessica Bergeron, her lack of trust in the district stems from county schools spending up to $12 million to buy UV sanitizing lights (that later malfunctioned) to fight COVID-19 in elementary schools.

  • “How am I expected to believe they can make wise financial decisions if they’re going to spend money on things that are ineffective?” asked Bergeron, who is a member of the Watching the Funds-Cobb organization that has questioned the district’s financial decisions.
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