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For the mother of two in suburban Atlanta’s wealthy East Cobb, the breaking point came the first Friday of the school year. It was two months after Cobb County School District, Georgia’s second-largest, announced it was revoking its mask mandate, two days after the district ditched its quarantine protocol for a far more lenient one, and 10 minutes after she had decided to cold call a local school official to ask a few questions.
“Sure, it’s more contagious,” Cobb County School Board Chairman Randy Scamihorn told her on that Aug. 6 call, after she raised concerns about the district’s preparedness for the delta variant. “But it’s less lethal and, uh, probably it’s more like a head cold.”
“My point is,” he said, “we look at it from a statistical point of view. Kids are pretty well immune to it, and we’ve always known that.”
For another East Cobb mother, who has triplets in fifth grade, the breaking point arrived the second week of school, as she sat feverish and shivering in the urgent care waiting room and realized that many of the families waiting alongside her were from her kids’ elementary school.
For the paraprofessional at an elementary school in a less-affluent part of the county, the breaking point came in Week 3, when she was forced to weigh her desire to protect the students in her care against the risk of bringing the virus home to her family.
As Cobb County’s superintendent and its school board continued to double down on its COVID-19 protocols, which are the laxest used in any of eight metro Atlanta school districts — and as the number of Cobb’s COVID-19 cases rose 458% from the first through the fourth week of school — many parents and staff felt increasingly helpless to stave off the virus. And they felt increasingly voiceless in the debate over what needed to be done to protect their children and themselves. (This reporter pulled her own children out of a Cobb County school, which she chronicled last month.)
ProPublica asked the district about the specific observations and experiences of parents that are detailed in this story. A district spokesperson responded, in part: “Cobb’s updated Public Health Protocols, which strongly encourage masks for students and staff and social distancing in classrooms and school buildings when appropriate and feasible, are intended to balance the importance of in-person learning and the frequent changes associated with COVID-19, and we will continue to update our school protocols accordingly.”
Scamihorn did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
We asked parents, educators and a student to share their accounts of that first month in an attempt to illuminate the realities that were unfolding behind the headlines — in classrooms, in hospital waiting rooms and at home. Here are their stories, in their own words.
Note: Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. ProPublica has verified subjects’ statements about COVID-19 test results, vaccinations, medical care, employment status and COVID-19 exposure letters using primary-source documentation.
Week 1: Aug. 2 to Aug. 6
Capocein Sams, who worked for 13 years as a substitute teacher and, eventually, a paraprofessional at Brumby Elementary School: I already knew that we were in a bad position that first week of school. … I [had] thought that we had more staff that was vaccinated. But when I had talked to [another employee of the school], she was like, “Cap, I can’t believe the amount of teachers that we have here that are not vaccinated. … We’re sitting ducks.”
Saumi Riaz, mother of triplets in fifth grade at East Side Elementary School in East Cobb:
My husband actually drew a map, sitting down with my son, saying, “Tell me where you sit … and tell me [on] the map which kid is wearing a mask around you.” So four kids around him didn’t have a mask. My son is the [only] one who’s wearing a mask.
A teacher at a Title I high school in South Cobb, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation for speaking critically about the district:
I didn’t really know what to expect. In my mind, I was like, “I bet a bunch of kids just stay home, or a bunch of kids go to the online academy, or a bunch of kids just decide to not come.” And I was wrong.
In two of my classes, there were more kids than seats. … Some days, I’m scrambling to get chairs from a workroom to say, “Hey, come sit at this table together,” which is also unsafe, because you can’t be 3 feet apart.
It got real scary, real fast.
My son got off the bus [on Thursday, Aug. 5], red like a tomato. … He started to shiver. … I put him on the sofa. I tucked him [in with] all the blankets I had in the common seating area. … He still didn’t stop shivering.
My husband said maybe he got [the] flu. I was like, “Faisal, all the symptoms are showing he got COVID.”
Faisal Riaz, Saumi Riaz’s husband: There’s a drive-thru testing facility right [near] our house and a line around the block of people waiting to get tested. So you know it’s about to happen, right? It’s about to hit. If this many people are getting tested, things are going bad.
Next day, … the youngest of the triplets, she got off the bus, blushed like a tomato, shivering inside the house.
I told my third one, “Please, you stay in your room.” We already know she’s exposed. She can’t go to school, obviously. I said, “Stay in your room, don’t come out.” And my husband, he’s in the basement.
Our kids made it from last February until [August] of this year without getting COVID. Three days in school, [two of them] got COVID.
East Cobb mother of a high schooler and middle schooler, who asked not to be named for fear of potential retribution for the phone call she recorded:
The enormity of what was happening … prompted me to start feeling a little overwhelmed, honestly. And so I did what I try to do when I’m starting to get overwhelmed by a situation. … I start thinking about, How do I make this really small? How do I address this situation?
So anyway, I pick up my phone. Nine o’clock on a Friday night, I’m gonna leave a message for the school board chairman. He answers.
[After Scamihorn likens COVID-19 in children to “a head cold” and says “kids are pretty well immune to it,” the mother asserts that the Delta variant is different and poses more of a problem than previous strains.]
SCAMIHORN: Something happens where we get an influx of, you know, undocumented migrants, to be politically correct. They’re still illegal aliens as far as this old guy’s concerned but —
EAST COBB MOTHER: Randy, I don’t understand what you’re telling me. What are you speaking about? Why are we speaking about immigration suddenly?
SCAMIHORN: Anything can make the numbers spike that we don’t anticipate. If we get illegal immigrants with COVID-postive, which they’re coming in over the border, you know, daily by the hundreds …
EAST COBB MOTHER: Randy, that’s incorrect. I’m sorry, I can’t, I can’t let that go. That’s completely incorrect.
SCAMIHORN: You listen to too much NPR now. [Laughter] Come on, now. Hey, I love it. I love hearing you. I really do, so —
EAST COBB MOTHER: Well, that’s completely spurious information. And it’s actually really appalling.
Week 2: Aug. 9 to Aug. 13
A 16-year-old junior at Pope High School in East Cobb: I assumed that there would be a lot more protocol than there actually is. … Sometimes I would be the only person in the classroom wearing a mask. Like, even the teacher wasn’t wearing a mask.
A teacher who is high-risk … had us at least 3 feet apart from each other. … She did ask that we wear a mask, just for each other’s safety and her safety. … I had my mask on. … But most people don’t wear a mask in that classroom.
South Cobb high school teacher:
I know a kid is out with COVID once I can see in attendance that they’re excused for 10 days. …
Saumi Riaz (who, along with her husband, is vaccinated):
I am feeling sick, and I’m having symptoms. … [On Tuesday, Aug. 10], I actually drove myself [to urgent care] with 102 fever and shivering. And I sat for hours in Wellstar’s waiting room. … Because I volunteer a lot in school, I recognize the parents and kids. … Kids came into that emergency room where I was sitting to get tested. Parents had their laptops, their work bags, … walking in there holding kids’ hands. … It was just getting packed up with kids.
East Cobb mother:
The second week of school, I hear the helicopters up at East Side [Elementary]. It’s the news helicopters, because, of course, East Side fifth grade is being evacuated. Because it’s so dangerous because of COVID.
[Due to a COVID-19 outbreak, East Side’s entire fifth grade class was sent home on Aug. 11 and those students switched to virtual learning. The fifth graders didn’t return to the classroom until Aug. 23.]
Faisal Riaz (whose triplets are in that fifth grade class but were home because two of them had the coronavirus):
School should not be a high-risk event, right? School should not be a superspreading event. It should be a sanctuary for people.
Week 3: Aug. 16 to Aug. 20
Portia Brimah, mother of a toddler and of two boys at Brumby Elementary School, all of whom have asthma; on Aug. 16, she received a letter from the school alerting her that one of her sons had been close in contact with someone who’d tested positive for the coronavirus — and instructing her that “your child should quarantine at home, except to attend school in-person”:
I was downtown at work. … I was sitting in my office. I had my door closed, and I was thinking about the close contact letter. … And I picked up the phone and I called their pediatrician. I said, “Hey, we need to come up with a game plan.” … She said, “You’re in Cobb County?” I said, “Yes, so what do I need to do in the event my children are exposed to COVID?” She said, “Well, first thing we need to do is get them in as soon as possible.” She said, “We can’t linger with you and wait for symptoms to escalate, because your children are high-risk.”
One hour later, I got the phone call to come pick up my children. … My fourth grader was exhibiting symptoms.
South Cobb high school teacher:
As Week 3 comes in, that’s when, as a teacher, you get in your groove. I took a week to get to know some kids, I took a week to start introducing some topics. And now we’re getting into it. We’re getting into the good stuff, right? … And then it’s Tuesday that I get a sore throat.
A sore throat is not necessarily something that would keep me out of school. You know, I can get a sore throat just for any reason. Talking too much. … Let’s play it by ear and see how I feel the next day. And so I wake up Wednesday and still got a sore throat and got a little bit of a cough. But the cough isn’t abnormal, either. I get coughs all the time.
By Thursday, I was starting to have a little bit of stuffiness in my face. And I was like, all right, well, this could be something.
I sat down and asked my son, “Who around you was sick?”
And his words to me was, “Mommy, everybody at the table I sat at was sick. And they all went home one by one, and I was the last one.”
You can look at my son’s eyes at that time and just say, “You don’t feel good.” Like, his eyes were weak. … And what we noticed is shortly thereafter, they would play, run around the house. He could maybe run a couple feet, and he would go into this coughing fit. You will see him trying to catch his breath.
My middle son, he was fine that day, but his symptoms kicked in the very next day. … I think about 1 o’clock in the morning, I walked in that room just to check. … His fever had shot to 102.5. … He just he went downhill extremely fast.
My youngest started showing symptoms on the 20th [the next day].
Sams (the paraprofessional at Brumby Elementary, where Brimah’s two older sons went to school):
I was telling everybody the way that these kids are sounding, with the congestion and runny noses, is like March , when they told us something is coming. We have kids that have been exposed to a potentially deadly virus. … And they do not tell the majority of the kids that are in the classroom with them, nor do we have any procedures or staff in place to even implement any procedures.
If you’re an adult and you want to go out there and you want to party and you want to get sick and die, hey, have at it. But these are children. … It’s like all of our babies are being sent to slaughter.
It was on Wednesday, Aug. 18. … I knew if I had expressed to [school leadership] that, OK, today is my last day, I would be in a meeting and they would be talking and begging and crying and this and that. So what I did is, I waited until they were not in the office. … I cleaned up my classroom. … I took my badge off. I have three keys, one to [the] door to the school, one to my classroom, one to the PTA closet. I attached them to my badge and I put it into the secretary’s mailbox.
[Asked about Sams’ resignation, a Cobb County School District spokesperson responded: “We are proud of our employee retention rate of 97% for this school year and encourage all employees to make job decisions which are best for them and their families.”]
South Cobb high school teacher:
I was worried. I was worried for my own health, I was worried for the health of the people around me, whether that was at work or at home.
I get off work Thursday, and I go and hunt around town a little bit for a take-home test. … I go home, I take the test, and it’s like, instant positive. … It was like, “No, you, sir, you have a problem.”
Brimah (who is vaccinated):
I’m at the emergency room with my [middle] child, and his body is literally burning up on me because his fever is so high.
When I went to [the ER], I tried to follow social distancing guidelines. It was impossible. There were children everywhere. … You could hear the rattle in their chest when they coughed. You could see the frustration on the parents’ faces.
That night, I said, “Doctor, give me your professional opinion. What would you advise us to do?” … And if I had to describe the look on his face when I asked that question, it was a look of relief that somebody realizes what we’re going through. … And he said, “I’m not gonna sit here and sugarcoat anything for you. … My children are in school, but they are in a private school where masks are mandated. If Cobb County does not change their standpoint, my strong advice to you is pull your children out.”
That was on Saturday the 21st. … I start showing symptoms on the 22nd. My test came back positive on the 23rd.
Week 4: Aug. 23 to Aug. 27
South Cobb high school teacher:
I was lucky. … I can say, “Hey, thanks vaccines — you did it!” … I have high blood pressure. I am overweight. … I’m lucky and thankful for the fact that I didn’t get any worse.
I got another test that Friday [Aug. 27] before I came back, which was nine days after my first first symptom, and I got a negative test. … [The isolation days get taken] out of my sick time. There’s no COVID leave. And if I run out of sick time because of this virus that the school gave me, and I gotta go home, I don’t get paid.
The people who are in charge of these policies are deniers of reality. … They would not take responsibility for making me sick. They won’t take responsibility for the three teachers who died last year. They won’t take responsibility for any bus drivers who died on their watch. They won’t take responsibility for anything of that nature.
I don’t think a lot of people realize the effects that it has on children. With my kids, they had to have albuterol and ipratropium nebulizer treatments around the clock, every four hours for three weeks. We had to go into what they call an emergency protocol just to make sure their respiratory system stayed open and they can continue to breathe.
Pope High School junior:
Because of COVID and everything, I have not had a full year of high school in person. … I would like to stay at my school and see my friends and have the normal high school experience. And if we have to wear masks, I would rather do that than have to leave again.
I’m watching the numbers steadily rise, continuously go up. So we had to make a decision. And the decision was to pull our kids out of school.
Virtual [charter] school so far is working out very well for us. But my concern right now is, what about those families that don’t have that option, those parents that can’t work remotely and stay home, or that have to worry about when the children are being quarantined and [that] they have to now stay home for 10 days?
In Week 4, the number of COVID-19 cases in Cobb County schools reached an all-time, single-week high.
ProPublica asked the district if its COVID-19 protocols had been sufficient to minimize the spread of the virus among students and staff in the first month of school. But the district did not respond to the question about that first month, instead pointing to the steady drop in cases during the second month. “Since the week of August 27, COVID-19 cases in Cobb Schools have decreased by 66%,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
A ProPublica review of COVID-19 case counts by week in eight metro Atlanta school districts shows that seven of them started seeing steady declines by or soon after Aug. 27 (the eighth had consistently low case counts) — and that Cobb County, the only district without a mask mandate, had the highest percentage increase in cases over the first four full weeks of school.
Top school officials in Cobb County have given few signs that they will meaningfully engage with those who remain concerned about the virus. At a school board meeting in late September, the superintendent gave a 29-minute presentation in which he claimed that “the data clearly indicates that a mask mandate does not provide a significant change in the cases.”
After the superintendent concluded, Scamihorn refused to grant a request from a member of the board’s all-Black Democratic minority to allow questioning of the presentation. Minutes later, all three minority school board members walked out of the meeting in protest.
Nicole Carr is a reporter focusing on criminal justice and racial inequity for ProPublica’s South unit.