After three teacher deaths of COVID-19 In Cobb County, Georgia, school officials refused to wear face masks to a board meeting Thursday when asked by a district official.
It was Patrick Key’s dying wish.
“Patrick was thrilled to wear masks during the pandemic,” he said obituary said. “Please buy and wear a mask instead of flowers to protect others and yourself in his honor.”
Key, 53, a Marietta resident, died on Christmas Day after a 41-day battle with COVID-19 in intensive care. He was a “lifelong lover of all things, comics, science fiction, Star Wars and manga,” says the obituary. He taught in Cobb County, a suburb of Atlanta, for 23 years.
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At last week’s board meeting, district employee Jennifer Susko spoke during the public comment session. She asked all eight board members and the superintendent to honor Key by watching for a moment of silence and putting on face masks, “in tribute to that teacher who did everything you asked him to do – even teach through a pandemic.”
“As teachers and staff are being asked more than ever to do more, we would like to see more done tonight to remember and honor Patrick,” said Susko. after a recording of the meeting.
When Susko paused for more than 10 seconds, two board members and the superintendent who were not wearing face masks did not put on any.
“I want the recording to reflect that some of you did not wear a mask, the last request from a late Cobb teacher. Your actions in those two minutes spoke louder than words,” said Susko. “We’ll see where your priorities are. Please know that many of us deny your false gratitude for the staff as we appear to many of you to be available.”
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The three men who were not wearing masks – Superintendent Chris Ragsdale, David Chastain, and David Banks – did not respond to requests for comment. A district spokesman said in a statement that the board of directors followed the district’s masking guidelines and were “intentionally spaced to allow social distancing” at the meeting.
Key’s wife, Cobb County teacher Priscella Key, told USA TODAY that her husband came home from school in early November with symptoms of a cold. She also developed symptoms the next day, and he went to the hospital a week later. At the end of the month, Priscella was cleared for return to work but has dealt with persistent symptoms.
Patrick was “the absolute love of my life,” she said in a statement. “I will love and miss him every moment of my life. He was the smartest, funniest, nicest person you have ever met. He would do anything to help someone in need and never complain. He was a very talented artist and had the gift of teaching art to others. “
Key said she and her family followed Thursday’s school board meeting online. What happened there “would have broken his heart,” she said.
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“When several board members refused to put on masks for a few seconds in honor of his memory, we were stunned. It was very disappointing, painful and offensive,” she said. “Patrick deserved better. The other two Cobb County teachers who passed away from Covid that day deserved better.”
Two other teachers in the school district died Thursday after contracting COVID-19. Dana Johnson was a teacher at Kemp Elementary School and Cynthia Lindsey was a paraprofessional at Sedalia Park Elementary School. It wasn’t immediately clear where or how the teachers had contracted COVID-19.
“The support for their families shows how much they were loved and how they made a positive impact on every student, teacher and parent with whom they interacted,” said the district spokesman, expressing condolences to the families of the three teachers.
More than 100 teachers lined up in cars on Thursday before the meeting began and honked in front of the school district’s office building. A dozen other people spoke during the public comment session, including many teachers who made emotional requests to the board for transparency and data-driven approaches to tackling COVID-19 in schools.
“They are definitely afraid that they will be the next educator,” Board member Leroy “Tre” Hutchins told USA TODAY. “Nobody enforces masks and there are no PPE.”
The district’s response to the pandemic was not on the school board’s agenda that evening, said board member Dr. Jaha Howard. During the meeting, Howard asked the superintendent if the group could discuss their COVID-19 response and Ragsdale declined the request.
“There was little to no discussion of the coronavirus, which was disappointing,” Howard told USA TODAY. “There is a story in which tough public discussions were avoided. The majority of our board of directors preferred a different strategy.”
Hutchins said his phone was blown up with emails and text messages from teachers when the superintendent refused to discuss the pandemic. The teachers “were just outraged that we would just go ahead and not even discuss it in a board meeting, and rightly so,” said Hutchins, who has two children in Cobb County schools.
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Cobb County has reported nearly 60,000 cases of COVID-19 and nearly 700 deaths since the pandemic began Data from Johns Hopkins University.
Last week when the county reported the third most common new confirmed cases in the state, The district switched to virtual learning. In-person classes resumed Monday, but “large numbers” of teachers didn’t return, Hutchins said. Some schools had about a third of their staff, he said.
Howard, who has three children in Cobb County’s elementary schools, said the community was going through “shock and frustration”.
“We ask our educators to put out our fires, but we give them a short hose with very little water to do their job,” said Howard.
Hutchins and Howard, along with Cobb County School board member Charisse Davis, teamed up with board members from other school districts in the Atlanta area on Sunday to write a letter to Georgia Governor Brian Kemp outlining action Calls for promoting safety in schools. Board members asked the governor to prioritize access to vaccinations for employees, provide N95 face masks, and collect anonymous feedback from employees.
“It’s not just a county problem. It’s a national problem,” said Howard. “We want our new Senators from the United States to find out what kind of federal aid we can get because this is not a partisan debate. This is about people and our society needing our schools open and safe.”
In honor of Patrick Key, Hutchins created a commemorative scholarship to help fund art teachers. Community members also worked on plans to commemorate Johnson and Lindsey, the other two teachers who passed away, Hutchins said.