School Board Members Face Criticism For Refusing To Wear Masks To Honor Teacher Who Died Of COVID-19

Members of the Cobb County School Board were specifically asked to wear face masks to honor a teacher — at least two quietly refused.

by Morgan Brinlee

Members of a Georgia county school board have come under fire for appearing to snub an opportunity to pay tribute to a teacher who passed away last month following a lengthy battle with COVID-19. During a recent meeting, members of the Cobb County School Board were asked to don a face mask and observe a moment of silence in tribute to kindergarten art teacher Patrick Key, an educator who was "passionate about wearing masks." But at least two members of the school board defied the teacher's dying wish for masks, sparking outrage among the educator's family and colleagues.

"I'm going to stop talking for a few seconds in honor of Mr. Key," Cobb County School District employee Jennifer Susko said during a Jan. 21 board of education meeting, noting that Key's obituary asked people to "wear a mask to protect others and yourself" as a means of honoring the educator. "During the silence, I'd like to ask all members of the board and the superintendent to put on your mask as a tribute to this teacher who did everything you asked of him, even teaching through a pandemic."

According to local broadcast news outlet WSB-TV, members of the board had all been given custom-made face masks ahead of the meeting, which featured an apple and Superman symbol and had been made to pay tribute to Key and two other Cobb County School teachers who died of COVID-19 earlier this month. While a majority of the board members were already wearing masks, video footage of the Jan. 21 board of education meeting clearly shows at least two members of the board — Superintendent Chris Ragsdale and board member David Banks — did not wear masks during the meeting and opted to remain unmasked during the tribute to Key, despite having been given one to wear.

"Your actions in these two minutes have spoken louder than words," Susko told the board following the moment of silence. "We see where your priorities are. Please know that many of us reject your false gratitude for staff since we seem disposable to many of you."

This isn't the first time teachers from Cobb County Schools have expressed anger with how the district and Superintendent Ragsdale have handled Key's passing. In December, teachers told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they felt a note from Ragsdale announcing Key's death was "heartless." That note, which was shared by the paper dedicated just two sentences to remembering Key while numerous other paragraphs reminded employees to stay committed to the district's mission.

While neither Ragsdale nor Banks responded to Romper's request for comment, a district spokesperson told Romper board members' hearts went out to Key's family as well as the families of Dana Johnson and Cynthia Lindsey, two other Cobb County School District educators who passed away earlier this month following battles with COVID-19. "Cynthia, Dana, and Patrick were incredibly valuable members of our Team," the spokesperson said. "The outpouring of support for their families shows how much they were loved and how they positively impacted every student, teacher, and parent who they interacted with."

"Our entire team, including our Board, is following the District mask policy ... which asks all staff or students to wear a mask at all times when social distancing is not possible," the spokesperson continued. "As you can clearly see, in the case of our Board meetings, the room has been intentionally spaced to allow for social distancing."

But the district's response hasn't satisfied members of Key's family. "I have many feelings but no socially appropriate words to describe them," Key's wife and fellow Cobb County School District employee Priscella Key wrote of the board meeting on Facebook. "It is most definitely a slap in the face from some members of the board."