ATLANTA – The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and two Atlanta area law firms are demanding the Cobb County School District immediately implement COVID-19 safety protocols in their schools to protect the rights of students with disabilities, including those with underlying medical vulnerabilities, to avoid a federal lawsuit, according to a letter they sent today notifying the district of the groups’ intent to sue.
The letter, sent on behalf of Cobb County families of children with disabilities, urged Superintendent Chris Ragsdale and members of the school board to modify its policies and practices by next week in order to accommodate students with disabilities and allow them to attend school safely in-person. Currently, the district’s policies and practices do not comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for K-12 schools, and do not require students and school personnel to wear masks in schools and on buses.
Children with certain disabilities have a higher risk of severe illness or death if they contract COVID-19 or variants of the virus. Currently, attending school in-person in Cobb County Schools jeopardizes their health and safety because of the district’s failure to implement COVID-19 safety protocols, including requiring its students to wear masks. Students are expected to return from fall break on Oct. 4.
The SPLC, along with the Goodmark Law Firm and the Law Office of Allison B. Vrolijk are representing the families. The groups’ letter explains that the district’s refusal to implement proven strategies offered by the CDC and supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Cobb County Board of Health to reduce virus transmission unlawfully exclude students with disabilities from attending school in-person by denying them the full benefits of a public education in a safe and accessible learning environment. The district’s actions constitute ongoing discrimination under federal laws that protect students with disabilities and ensure equal access to public education, the letter states.
“The district's decision to not implement CDC COVID mitigation guidelines is causing parents of students with significant medical conditions to make an impossible choice: their child's education or their child's lives,” said Allison Vrolijk of the Law Office of Allison B. Vrolijk. “This unconscionable position can be easily remedied through measures taken by innumerable other school districts across Georgia, but the Cobb County Superintendent and School Board have chosen not to. We hope that they do the right thing and show that they care about the health and well-being of all of their students.”
Despite persistent calls from parents and state and local health experts for a mask mandate and other safety protocols in the district, certain members of the Cobb County School Board refuse to include COVID-19 on their meeting agenda, including the meeting scheduled on September 23, 2021. Due to a policy change after the November 2020 election, agenda items now require a majority vote of its seven members, which are split along racial and political lines.
In Cobb County schools, more than 60% of students are children of color and there are approximately 15,000 students with disabilities enrolled. However, issues of importance to students and communities of color, and students with disabilities, are too often defeated by a 4-3 split vote with the board’s four white Republican members, Scamihorn, Banks, Chastain, and Wheeler, voting against them.
“Like many other policies and practices in Cobb County schools, the district’s latest decision to ignore basic safety precautions for students, led by Ragsdale and the majority board members, is rooted in discrimination and systemic racism. These officials continue to put politics ahead of Cobb County’s diverse student population, and propaganda ahead of public health and common-sense science,” said Mike Tafelski, SPLC senior supervising attorney. “We are asking these Board members and Superintendent Ragsdale to put their politics and biases aside and consider the needs of the students they were selected to serve.”