As Schools Reopen, Georgia Students Suspended for Blowing the Whistle on Crowded Hallways

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Hannah Watters wrote on Twitter that she was suspended for posting a video and photo of crowded hallways at her high school. hannah @ihateiceman

As the debate over how and if to safely reopen schools in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic continues, two student whistleblowers have been caught in the crosshairs.

The students, who attend North Paulding High School in Georgia, told BuzzFeed News they were suspended for posting videos of crowded hallways on social media.

“Day two at North Paulding High School. It is just as bad. We were stopped because it was jammed,” 15-year-old Hannah Watters wrote in the Twitter post that accompanied a photo she took. “We are close enough to the point where I got pushed multiple go to second block. This is not ok. Not to mention the 10% mask rate.”

Watters said she received a five day, out-of-school suspension for sharing a video and photo of the conditions. Another student, who asked to remain anonymous, also said they were suspended for tweeting photos of hallway crowding.

The school told Watters she had been suspended on three grounds: using her phone without permission, using it to post on social media and posting pictures of minors without their consent.

However, Watters told CNN that the rules against phone use do not apply to students in grades nine through 12 and that she posted the video and photo after school. She acknowledged that she broke the rule against posting photos of other students.

“I’d like to say this is some good and necessary trouble,” Watters told CNN. “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’ wasn’t the first image of crowding at the high school to go viral. That honor goes to a photo shared by the account @Freeyourmindkid, according to BuzzFeed News. It is not clear who took the image or if they were penalized.

The photos of hallway crowding at North Paulding High School have emerged as a symbol for the difficulties of safely reopening schools, The New York Times pointed out. Schools that have reopened for in-person instruction in Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Indiana have had to impose quarantines and sometimes close classrooms or whole schools in response to new cases. In another Georgia school, for example, an entire second-grade class had to quarantine for two weeks after one of its students tested positive for COVID-19 on the second day, as CBS News reported.

Paulding County School District superintendent Brian Otott defended the district’s decision to reopen in a letter and said the photos were taken out of context. He said they were taken during the “brief” period when high school students change classes and he noted that the Department of Public Health said people catch COVID-19 after being within six feet of an infected person for 15 minutes.

“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,” he wrote.

The district has also come under fire for its mask policy. Instead of requiring their use, it considers mask-wearing a “personal choice,” BuzzFeed News reported. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends mask use, however.

Watters also took a tally of how many students in her classes wore masks each day.

In every class, a majority of students chose not to wear masks.

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