One of two Georgia teens punished for posting a photo and a video of their crowded school corridor with hardly any social distancing or masks will not face suspension after all.
Hannah Watters, 15, was initially suspended from North Paulding High earlier this week for posting the now-viral photo on Twitter. The picture, which shows students in school hallways shoulder to shoulder, many without masks, coincided with reopenings of schools in Southern states like Georgia and Tennessee where the deadly coronavirus is still taking the lives of hundreds every day.
The photos that Watters and a second unidentified student shared on Twitter told only part of the story of the school’s reopening. On Aug. 5, Watters posted a note outlining how many students in each of her classes were wearing masks. Over the course of three days, only two of her classes had at least half of the students wearing masks.
Hannah’s mother, Lynne, filed a complaint with the school over its decision to suspend her daughter Wednesday.
In a letter to parents, Brian Otott, the district’s superintendent, admitted that the photo “does not look good” but insisted that even though he strongly suggests students wear masks, there’s little that can be done about it.
“Wearing a mask is a personal choice, and there is no practical way to enforce a mandate to wear them,” he writes in the letter.
Watters told BuzzFeed News that she was called in to the main office Wednesday and told that she’d violated the school’s code of conduct, which states students are prohibited from filming or taking photos on school grounds and posting them on social media. But she insisted that blowing the whistle on the school’s poor social distancing practices was the right move.
“Not only did they open but they have not been safe,” she told BuzzFeed News. “Many people are not following CDC guidelines because the county did not make these precautions mandatory.”
The school reversed its decision on Friday, according to Watters. She is expected to return to class Monday morning. The disciplinary status of the unnamed student is not yet known.
In an interview with CNN, Hannah echoed the famous words of the late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis: “I’d like to say this is some good and necessary trouble.”
“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,” she said.
Across the country, school reopenings have become contentious and politicized among Republicans and Democrats. While many want to see a continuation of remote learning instead of in-person instruction, others, including President Donald Trump, are falsely claiming that kids are safe from the virus and schools should reopen as scheduled.
“This thing is going away,” Trump said in a phone interview with his favorite morning news program “Fox & Friends” Wednesday morning. “[Coronavirus] will go away, like things go away, and my view is that schools should be open.”
The reality is different: In Indiana, numerous students tested positive for coronavirus on the very first day of classes last week, prompting some schools to shift to online classes. In Mississippi, dozens of students were asked to quarantine for 14 days following positive coronavirus tests, and a teacher died while quarantining at home. In Tennessee, 32 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed across 50 school districts.
Meanwhile, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Friday morning that New York schools can reopen with the approval of the state’s health department, as long as they follow strict CDC guidelines regarding social distancing.
Cover: The crowded hallways between classes on August 4, 2020, at North Paulding High School in Georgia. (Photo: Hannah Watters)