When the teachers of Dalton Public Schools held their back-to-school gathering on Aug. 5, known as a convocation, there was celebration in the air.
One teacher got on stage and sang his own version of "Dancing in the Streets," including a lyric that promised "learnin' and sharin,' and no mask wearin.'"
The crowd at the convention center, mostly unmasked, cheered loudly, according to a video from social media that was submitted as evidence in a complaint filed Aug. 29 with the U.S. Department of Education.
Twelve parents in the Georgia school district say the schools' response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic for the new school year is inadequate and has endangered public health by allowing families to opt out of a requirement for face coverings.
Dalton Public Schools Superintendent Tim Scott said in a statement that the district is doing everything in 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 officials have taken to protect the school community, plus the heating and air system have been ionized.
"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," Scott said in the statement.
One of the parents who filed the complaint, Ashley Fleeman, said she is as concerned about lax enforcement of COVID-19 policies as she is with what she sees as the relative lack of them.
Witnessing teachers cutting corners with COVID-19 protocols has been a regular part of the pandemic in Dalton, she said, and she is not convinced that any changes — however well-intentioned — can make a difference in an environment where personal choice has been prioritized over safety.
Her daughter was a student at Westwood Elementary School until recently, when Fleeman pulled her out of school.
Every morning Fleeman said she witnessed unmasked teachers help her daughter out of the car to go into the school building. As part of the district's mitigation plan, these teachers were supposed to ask students a series of health screening questions before they head into school. Fleeman said that didn't happen on most occasions.
Instead, the only question they asked was if her daughter's answers were the same as they were the previous day.
"They come over to the car without a mask on and they lean in and say, 'Same answers as yesterday?' It's not enough," Fleeman said. "These students are young. They don't know what the questions are. It isn't their job to know. Ask them. I know we're all tired of being in a pandemic, but this isn't something we should phone in because we're tired of asking the question or wearing a mask. It's my kid's life we're talking about."
The problems with enforcement of these rules do not, in Fleeman's opinion, stop at the front door of the school. She said teachers who support masking have told her they fear retaliation if they speak out about wanting students to wear masks or wanting to mask themselves in situations where others aren't. Fleeman points to the convocation as an example of both complaints in action.
A video posted to Facebook shows hundreds of teachers and staff in district T-shirts talking and laughing together in one room without any masks in sight.
Classes started five days later, on Aug. 10. By the end of the first week of school, 16 Dalton Public Schools staff members tested positive for the virus. Among them was Sean Hammond, who died Monday after a struggle with the virus.
Hammond was entering his first year at Hammond Creek Middle School as a special education teacher this year and attended three days of pre-planning and new teacher induction before testing positive.
Previously, he helped start the football program at the middle school and was a part of the Dalton Cats Youth Football program, where he would step in to help out whenever coaches were absent or unable to attend practices.
Hammond was known for the kindness he showed students on the field, and though he had not officially started work in the classroom before his death, school officials said he was "incredibly talented and passionate and good at building relationships with students."
Others in the community also praised Hammond for his ability to make his players feel like they were part of his family. Hammond Creek Middle School head football coach George Woods said he was heartbroken by the loss.
"Coach Hammond was such an inspiration to our boys. Their play on the field the last couple weeks is a direct effect from his coaching," Woods said. "Our hearts break for his son Marshall and the rest of Coach Hammond's family."
His wife, Heidi Hammond, is a teacher in nearby Murray County Schools and also has tested positive for COVID-19. She is hospitalized and on a ventilator. Their son, Marshall, just turned 12. A donation fund has been set up in his name at First National Community Bank in Dalton. Contributions can be made by visiting any First National Community Bank in Dalton, Chatsworth, Eton, Calhoun or Cartersville.
Coach Woods said the community intends to support Marshall in any way he needs for as long as possible.
"We got a community of people that are going to raise Marshall, you know, be his secondary dad, and help him get through this," he said.
How each of the Hammonds first got the virus is something no one knows, but Fleeman said she and the other parents represented in the Department of Education complaint worry the district's mask policy is what first put them at risk.
"This complaint wasn't filed because of his passing, and I don't want to say anyone is to blame for what happened," Fleeman said. "What I do want to say is that there are videos of him online at convocation with plenty of staff and faculty members standing around unmasked. They even sang a song making fun of masks. So far, the district is denying responsibility or that they contributed at all to his death. As a parent, that's extremely disconcerting."
Superintendent Scott was not available for an interview on Thursday, however, a statement from the district said Hammond would be missed.
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to all of Coach Hammond's family and friends as we all grieve the loss of an extraordinary individual," the statement said.
As of Thursday, there had been more than 200 reported cases of COVID-19 among Dalton Public Schools students and staff since the start of the school year.
The entire district entered into the second phase of its virus mitigation plan last week, meaning that there was a moderate level of community spread districtwide and that the number of positive cases in each school represented 2% or more of the total building population over a five-day period.
Moving forward, Scott said the district would continue to consult with the North Georgia Health District for advice and up-to-date information.
Contact Kelcey Caulder at email@example.com.
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