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Viral Photo Of Students In Crowded Hallway At Reopened School Sparks Safety Concerns

Parents around the country have expressed concerns about the practicality of sending kids back to school amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic after a photo of crowded hallways at a reopened Georgia school went viral on social media, garnering national headlines and heated criticism.

Paulding County Schools in Georgia has come under scrutiny after a photograph depicting students, the majority of whom are not wearing face coverings, crowded into hallways between classes surfaced online just days after the district reopened for in-person instruction.

Photographs taken at North Paulding High School in Dallas, Georgia, on Monday and Tuesday and shared anonymously by students across social media showed students crowded shoulder-to-shoulder in hallways and sitting in classrooms where the back of students' chairs touch the desks of the student behind them. Few students are wearing masks in any of the pictures.

In an email to parents obtained by the Associated Press and CBS46, Paulding County School Superintendent Brian Ottot said the pictures appeared to be from North Paulding High School's return to in-person instruction. "There is no question that the photo does not look good," Ottot wrote, according to both news outlets. "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 added that students' transition between classes was "a challenge" and that the district was continuing to look for "practical ways to further limit students from congregating." He stressed the district was following state guidelines for reopening and argued students would need to be within six feet of a sick person for 15 minutes in order to catch COVID-19.

In regards to students' lack of face coverings, Ottot said the district had decided not to mandate masks. "Wearing a mask is a personal choice and there is no practical way to enforce a mandate to wear them," he wrote, according to the Associated Press. Romper's requests for comment from Ottot and Paulding County Schools were not returned.

On Wednesday, both CBS46 and BuzzFeed News reported North Paulding High School principal Gabe Carmona had threatened to take action against students who shared anything that cast the school in a negative light on social media. "Anything that's going on social media that's negative or alike without permission, photography, that's video or anything, there will be consequences," CBS46 reported Carmona said in a recording they obtained of an announcement that had been made at the school. Romper's request for comment from the high school regarding the recording was not immediately returned. And while Romper could not immediately confirm reports that at least one student who had shared photos from the school's reopening had allegedly been suspended, one of the students told BuzzFeeds News she "received a five-day, out-of-school suspension."

Photographs depicting crowded hallways and classrooms at North Paulding High were particularly troubling for some parents given reports a undisclosed number of football players at the school had tested positive for COVID-19 just days ahead of reopening. "I want you to know that while preparing for the upcoming season, our football team has learned of both new positive tests and potential symptoms within the program," Carmona wrote in an email distributed to parents Sunday, one day before in-person classes began at the school, as WSB-TV reported.

However, it seems as if the school is no longer allowing students to opt for distance learning. The parents of one North Paulding High School student told BuzzFeed News they'd decided to pull their son from in-person instruction after seeing the photographs, but said they were told by school administrators that virtual learning was full and their son would face suspension or expulsion if he "chose not to go to school" in person. Information from the school district's website has confirmed there is a waitlist for virtual learning. The district did not respond to Romper's questions regarding how many students were waitlisted and why space had been limited.

While the photographs have also raised concerns nationwide about the practicality and logistics of maintaining social distancing when returning students to in-person instruction, some within Paulding County Schools have expressed support for the district on Facebook. "THANK YOU, PCSD for standing strong and making our children's MENTAL HEALTH a priority," one parent wrote in a comment on the district's Facebook page. "Do not let rude people or the media bully you into changing your minds. Most of the children who are [face-to-face learning] WANT to be there."

Still, others have criticized the school's approach to reopening. One person commented on the district's Facebook page that the reopening is "disgraceful from a public health perspective," while another parent urged the school to "please enforce masks at the very least."

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all of Romper’s parents + coronavirus coverage here.