Dalton Public Schools parents file federal complaint over opt-out masking

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At least a dozen Dalton Public Schools parents have filed a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education over the Georgia school district's policy allowing students to opt out of masking at school.

Dalton Public Schools parent and local attorney Charles Smitherman filed the complaint with the education department's Office for Civil Rights on Sunday.

The complaint requests an investigation into what he calls the "ongoing mismanagement and dereliction of duties to protect the health of all students" on the part of both Dalton Public Schools and the school board in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.

By allowing some students to opt out of wearing masks, the complaint alleges the district is infringing on the rights of other students who want to wear them to protect and prioritize their own health.

"I am writing this request as a parent of a child in the district that contracted COVID-19 on the first day of school from an infected unmasked child and as an attorney in representation of the voices of a large group of similar parents facing the direct consequences of infected children and fearing reprisals from the district in coming forward," Smitherman said in the complaint. "Dalton Public Schools continues to refuse to act to avert the current public health crisis in the school district, thereby depriving and infringing on the students' fundamental rights to protect their health as a consequence of Dalton Public Schools' protections of infectious student preferences to not wear masks."

The school district requires students to wear masks in school buildings at all times, but there is an opt-out option for parents who don't want to make their children wear them.

No reason has to be provided for not wearing a mask. Parents can go online and fill out a form saying their child should not be made to mask indoors.

Following an opt-out request, unmasked students are put into classes with other unmasked students and are kept separate from those wearing masks during the school day.

Smitherman said such segregation was pointless because students in the same buildings "effectively remain in the same swimming pool."

"Dalton Public Schools' current policies amount to maintaining a non-smoking section on an airplane where the preferences of smokers are prioritized over the rights of others," Smitherman said.

Also outlined in the complaint are concerns about a potential change to the district's COVID-19 policies that would remove quarantine requirements for school exposures. The change, Smitherman said, would allow the district to downplay the actual number of quarantined and exposed students, something the complaint alleges education officials have been trying to do from the start.

School officials deny that is the case and instead said they have made all decisions related to COVID-19 with transparency and the best interests of students in mind.

Dalton Public Schools Superintendent Tim Scott said the district was doing everything its power to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the school community.

Social distancing, limited use of school cafeterias, daily school cleanings and the periodic use of an antimicrobial spray to kill viruses on surfaces are just a few of the measures he said Dalton Public Schools has taken to protect the school community.

All of the heating and air systems in every school in the district have also been upgraded to include a ionization, which Scott said kills pathogens such as COVID-19, and the district recently implemented a new tiered mitigation plan that allows for better control of the rate of community spread within individual schools.

"Based on community and school spread of the virus, our district is currently in Tier 2, which requires all our students to wear masks, with the option for a parent to opt out their student," Scott said Thursday. "Currently, we have 119 students who have been opted out of wearing a mask out of our 7,554 in-person students, which means 98.5% of our students are wearing a mask and only 1.6% have opted out of wearing a mask."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for schools recommends universal indoor masking for all students and staff in K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status, and keeping a social distance of at least 3 feet between students in classrooms to reduce transmission risk.

As the highly contagious delta variant continues to spread across North Georgia, the number of positive cases and hospitalizations continues to rise as well, leaving medical centers struggling to find adequate staff and space to treat those who are sick. Nearby Hamilton Medical Center, AdventHealth Gordon and AdventHealth Murray have all reported being at or near bed capacity for months. Meanwhile, Georgia ranks among the least vaccinated states in the country with just 44% of residents fully vaccinated.

Vaccination rates in Whitfield County are lower, with just 36% of residents fully vaccinated as of Wednesday afternoon.

Contact Kelcey Caulder at [email protected] or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.