Back to school amid coronavirus: Georgia student suspended for viral photo of crowded school hallways

Back to school amid coronavirus: Georgia student suspended for viral photo of crowded school hallways
File photo high school student (Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay)

PAULDING COUNTY, Ga. — A Georgia teenager was told she would be suspended from school after posting photos and videos on social media of crowded hallways at the school where few people were wearing face coverings amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The suspension was lifted Friday after the student’s story went viral across the country.

Hannah Watters, 15, attends North Paulding High School in Paulding County, Georgia. Schools in the area began in-person classes on Aug. 3.

The 10th grader posted images on Twitter the first two days back at school showing dozens of students walking in one of the schools hallways in very close proximity. The photos showed students were not six feet apart, and many of the teenagers were not wearing masks. Watters also posted a note reporting the number of students in her classes who weren’t wearing face coverings.

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Her posts amassed thousands of shares, likes and comments.

Watters was told she would be suspended for violating the school’s code of conduct. Violations included using a cell phone during school hours and using social media during school hours. Watters’s mother said her daughter uploaded the photos to social media after the school’s dismissal.

According to Atlanta-based news station WSB-TV, school staff told students they could be punished for posting such photos but only after Watters’s posts went viral. Students were told that the school district would enforce discipline for those who share pictures like the ones that gained nationwide attention.

“There is no question that the photo does not look good. I can understand if your first reaction was one of concern,” Brian Otott, the superintendent of Paulding County Schools said in a letter to parents. “Some individuals on social media are taking this photo and using it without context to criticize our school reopening efforts. Under the COVID-19 protocols, we have adopted class changes that look like this may happen, especially at a high school with more than 2,000 students.”

Ottot said it’s inevitable students will be in close contact during class changes and cited the Department of Public Health’s warning that exposure to COVID-19 increases when an infected person comes in contact with others for 15 minutes, WSB-TV reported.

He said students have about five minutes to commute between classes.

“Class changes at the high school level are a challenge when maintaining a specific schedule. It is an area we are continuing to work on in this new environment to find practicable ways to further limit students from congregating,” Ottot said. “Students are in this hallway environment for just a brief period as they move to their next class.”

He also said the school district cannot force students to wear masks.

“Wearing a mask is a personal choice, and there is no practical way to enforce a mandate to wear them. What we will do is continue to strongly encourage all students and staff to wear masks,” Ottot said.

Watters will be allowed to return to classes starting Monday, WSB-TV reported.

She said she believes her posts were “good and necessary trouble,” a nod to the late civil rights leader John Lewis.

“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,” Watters said in an interview with CNN.

“My mom has always told me that she won’t get mad at us if we get in trouble as long as it’s ‘good trouble,’” Watters said, according to The New York Times. “You’re bettering society and bettering the world, so those consequences don’t outweigh the end result.”

Hillary Clinton later wrote on Twitter that “John Lewis would be proud.”

Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan said the state’s school districts know they will need to “make adjustments” to better address COVID-19 concerns throughout the school year.

“Just like a businesses has got to earn the trust and the confidence of their customers, I think schools are going to have to earn the trust and confidence of the parents and the students,” he said. “It’s a work in progress, and we’re going to do the best we possibly can.”