The widely circulated photo from North Paulding High School in Dallas, Ga., showed students crowded into a packed hallway on their first day back to classes since the coronavirus outbreak shuttered school buildings across the country in the spring. Few were wearing masks, and there was little sign of social distancing. Then on Day 2, there was another.
The photos, which were shared on social media and cited in news reports, have quickly come to symbolize a chaotic first week back in U.S. classrooms. Schools in states where students have returned, including Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Indiana, have had to initiate quarantines and in some cases shut down classrooms and entire schools temporarily after positive cases emerged.
A 15-year-old student at North Paulding, Hannah Watters, was suspended for five days for posting images of the crowded hallways on Twitter, according to her mother, Lynne Watters, who said she filed a grievance with the school on Thursday morning.
“I expressed my concerns and disagreement with that punishment,” Ms. Watters said in a text message.
She said North Paulding’s principal, Gabe Carmona, told her he would be in contact with her by the end of the day on Friday. Mr. Carmona could not immediately be reached for comment.
The superintendent of the Paulding County School District, Brian Otott, defended his system’s reopening plan, saying in a letter to the community after the hallway photos circulated that the scenes were taken out of context. Students only remained in the hallways briefly while switching classes, he wrote, and the school was following recommendations issued by the Georgia Department of Education.
But he acknowledged, “There is no question that the photo does not look good.”
Masks are not required at the school, Mr. Otott said, though the administration strongly encourages them for students and staff members.
“Wearing a mask is a personal choice, and there is no practical way to enforce a mandate to wear them,” he wrote, adding that more than 2,000 students attend the high school.
The school district did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.
The district’s guidelines say staff members will do their best to require students to maintain social distancing, but note that it would “not be possible to enforce social distancing in classrooms or on school buses unless it is a class or a bus with fewer students.”
A spokesman for the Georgia Department of Public Health’s northwest district, which includes Paulding County, said the agency offers advice about best practices for controlling the spread of the virus, but choices about what to do in schools are ultimately up to local officials.
“Each school system makes its own decisions,” said the spokesman, Logan Boss, adding that the department does not monitor schools to see if they are complying with its recommendations.
The high school opened for the school year on Monday even though there had already been reports of a coronavirus outbreak among members of the football team. Mr. Boss said he was not aware of students or staff members testing positive at North Paulding High, but he added, “There’s widespread community transmission in Paulding County.”