After exposing the crowded hallways of her Georgia high school, it was student Hannah Watters herself who faced consequences.
The teenager, who attends North Paulding High School in Dallas, Ga., amassed viral attention after tweeting a photo of a hallway in her school while students were changing classes. It was a typical high school scene with students toting backpacks and standing close together as they filled the hallway—except for the fact that the photo was posted on Tuesday, Aug. 4, on just the second day back to school amid the coronavirus pandemic.
As Watters tweeted with the photo, "Day two at North Paulding High School. It is just as bad. We were stopped because it was jammed. We are close enough to the point where I got pushed multiple go to second block. This is not ok. Not to mention the 10% mask rate."
While the picture and a similar one posted by another student have sparked national headlines, Watters was briefly suspended from the school.
Appearing on CNN on Thursday, Aug. 6, Watters explained her decision to take the picture.
"I took the photo initially after seeing the first day of school photo taken by someone else go online as well and got picked up by some media coverage," she told host Laura Coates. "I took it out of mostly concern and nervousness after seeing the first days of school."
"I was concerned for the safety of everyone in that building and everyone in the county," the student continued, "because…guidelines that the CDC has been telling us for months now weren't being followed."
Paulding County School District Superintendent Brian Otott addressed one of the viral photos of a hallway at North Paulding High School in a letter to the community, acknowledging that the "photo does not look good," but also that it was purportedly being used without context in the media.
"Class changes at the high school level are a challenge when maintaining a specific schedule," he explained. "It is an area we are continuing to work on in this new environment to find practicable ways to further limit students from congregating. Students are in this hallway environment for just a brief period as they move to their next class." Otott also cited the Department of Health's guidance that exposure to COVID-19 occurs after "being within six feet of a sick person with COVID-19 for about 15 minutes."
"One area where we have received a good deal of feedback is mask use in our schools," he added. "Wearing a mask is a personal choice and there is no practical way to enforce a mandate to wear them. What we will do is continue to strongly encourage all students and staff to wear masks." In a tweet, Watters logged less than half of students wearing a mask in nearly all of her classes for the first three days of school.
Meanwhile, school policy was enforced against Watters. On CNN, she explained that she was found in violation of multiple policies in the school's code of conduct.
"One of them saying that I used my phone during instruction time and that I used it in the hallway during class change, but it also says that students nine through 12 have permission to use it," Watters said on TV. "The second one that they said I broke was using my phone during school hours for social media, but I posted the photo onto Twitter after school...at the end of dismissal."
She did admit to breaking a policy about filming students and posting it on social media platforms. "I'd like to say that this is some good and necessary trouble," she told Coates, "so I don't regret posting this because it needed to be said."
Watters also reacted to Otott's message, explaining that students can pass virtually anyone else in the building on the way to their next class and potentially have to travel from one end of the building to the opposite side of campus or to a different floor.
As the interview concluded, Watters summarized her safety concerns for the school.
"I've seen a few of my friends or fellow classmates that have told me or said online that they are being tested or that their family member has tested positive…it takes awhile to figure out if you've gotten it, so my biggest concern—it's not only about me being safe, it's about everyone being safe," she said. "Behind every teacher, student and staff member, there's a family, there's friends and I just want to keep everyone safe."
Meanwhile, Watters can now join them in the hallways again. Just hours after her TV appearance, Watters announced on social media that her suspension has been lifted.
"This morning my school called and they have deleted my suspension," she tweeted. "To everyone supporting me, I can't thank you enough. If I'm not responding it's because my life has been somewhat crazy the past few days. Once again thank you...To be 100% clear, I can go back to school on Monday. I couldn't have done this without all the support, thank you."