But during the raging coronavirus pandemic, from which at least 257,072 Americans have died, Ola High School had no plans to host a mass gathering of singing and sweating teenagers. So parents in the town about 35 miles south of Atlanta did it themselves, with few precautions, on Nov. 14.
Photos on social media show students wearing bronzer and hoop earrings. Boys wore rented tuxedos and boutonnières to match their dates’ blue satin. Bright green homecoming court sashes sat draped across sequin dresses and giant crowns rested atop loose curls.
“It’s my daughter’s senior year, so I hosted a dance,” one parent, Beth Knight, told The Daily Beast over Facebook messenger. “It was terrific.”
“We sold over 300 tickets, but only about 250 kids actually showed up because they were warned by teachers and coaches that they should not attend because of the virus,” Knight added. “The kids who came had fun.”
A trawl of social media accounts linked to the event—with not a mask in sight—appeared to confirm that. It was just the latest in a laundry list of weddings, dances, religious gatherings, and concerts that appeared to flout public health guidance as pandemic fatigue set in across the country. Couples, parents, and church leaders have gathered in crowds together despite months of repeated messages from authorities about masks and hand-washing and distancing—and warnings about an impending, deadly holiday surge in COVID-19 cases.
“Dancing it off,” one apparent attendee posted on Instagram, squatting in front of a wall, with students in black and red dresses behind him. “This do be our last hoco,” wrote another student. (“Hoco” appears to be the vogue term for “homecoming.”)
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Last week, The Daily Beast reported that parents at a school in Rolla, Missouri, threw a homecoming dance for up to 200 students in that community. As infections spread in the aftermath of the event, the school was forced to return to fully remote learning, and the public health department fell significantly behind in its contact-tracing efforts.
When asked on Monday if she feared that her own event could turn into a “superspreader,” creating a pre-Thanksgiving surge of cases in McDonough, Knight seemed to take issue with the question.
“It seems the liberals and the Democrats want to keep the virus agenda front and center,” she told The Daily Beast. “The conservatives, on the other hand, are ready to embrace freedom again. This whole virus plandemic scamdemic has totally ruined 2020. The media [is] paralyzing people with fear so they will do mail-in ballots to rig an election. They succeeded in election fraud. The election is over. People need to stop bowing down to the virus. Forcing people to wear masks is a crime.”
Famously, no significant evidence of voter fraud has emerged in the 2020 election.
“The dance was nine days ago,” Knight continued. “I have not heard of anyone testing positive who attended the dance. Kids need to have some normalcy to help with anxiety and depression. Don’t you agree?”
Knight was unwilling to list any COVID precautions taken by organizers of the dance. This appeared to be consistent with posts on her Facebook page in the days surrounding the event, which featured a #burnthemask hashtag, along with allegations that “making kids wear masks is child abuse.” She also shared a post arguing that the top infectious disease expert in the country, Dr. Anthony Fauci, “should be in prison.”
Two students who said they were in student leadership at Ola High School spoke to The Daily Beast on Monday under the condition of anonymity. The pair said they helped plan the dance but were afraid that press coverage would “ruin” their football team’s efforts to compete in one last game of the season on Friday.
“I’m going to cry,” one of the students said in a phone interview.
“For senior year, any event that’s been cancelled, I’ve been doing everything I can to have that event, even if it’s outside of school,” added the student. “None of the football players went, so that, just in case, they could play in the playoffs.” (Of course, any number of dance attendees could have infected members of the football team or others in the community in the days afterward.)
With help from parents and classmates, the students found a venue, hired a DJ, and planned a list of precautions. Those precautions, the students said, included a COVID waiver with safety information, contactless temperature readings on-site, optional masks, hand sanitizers, and pre-packaged food.
Phone messages and emails left for the high school’s administrators were not returned on Monday, but a statement from JD Hardin, executive director of communications at Henry County School District, confirmed on Monday that “school leaders did hear of the private, non-school affiliated party.” Hardin, however, would not clarify whether school administrators were aware of it before it took place, as one student told The Daily Beast on Monday.
“This was a private party and in no way sanctioned/sponsored by the school or the school district,” said Hardin. “Henry County Schools continues to adhere to the guidelines and protocols set forth by the CDC, Department of Public Health, and local medical professionals. All guidelines and protocols have been incorporated into our board of education-approved, district-adopted guidelines and response plans. We continue to remind everyone in our community the important role they play in mitigating any spread of COVID-19 by wearing a mask, washing hands, and watching the distance between individuals.”
As for how many students at the high school have COVID-19, Hardin said one student was reported as being infected the week of Nov. 9-13 and another was reported for the week of Nov. 16-20.
The largest hospital in the area, Piedmont Henry, stopped responding to The Daily Beast’s emails seeking an interview with hospital administrators after a spokesperson learned what the story was about.
After this story published on Tuesday, the hospital sent a statement: “Piedmont Henry Hospital’s COVID patient volumes have remained stable throughout the month of November, with minor fluctuations of increases and decreases. We continue to emphasize that Georgians should follow the best public health guidance: mask up, watch your distance, wash your hands, and avoid large gatherings.”
The mayor of McDonough, Georgia, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Monday.
“I didn’t want to see a tradition that we’ve had for over 20 years taken away,” one of the students told The Daily Beast. “I wanted to see kids that have been doing nothing for eight months experience some joy.”
The other student, also a senior, said: “There were a lot of people against us, but we had a lot more support than critics. Our tradition at our school runs very deeply.”
That much appeared to be true. There were at least 10 parent chaperones, the students said, and others proudly posted about their children or grandchildren attending the event on Facebook.
Tony Sargent, a 48-year-old native of the McDonough area, said his son, a senior, “had a great night” at the dance and that he wasn’t worried about it. Sargent said he believed COVID transmission wasn’t something his son needed to be worried about because it has more severe effects on older people than it does on teenagers.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that most children infected with COVID-19 have mild symptoms, “some children can get severely ill from COVID-19,” including requiring hospitalization. In rare cases, teens have died from the virus.
“There was massive interest in an event like this,” said Sargent. “Obviously not everybody went, so I guess if somebody had a problem they just didn’t go.”
A viral pandemic makes things a bit more complicated than that. And as for the idea that the dance had seemingly gone off without epidemiological incident, the health department wasn’t so sure.
“We are seeing an increase pretty much everywhere,” Hayla Folden, spokesperson for Georgia’s District 4 Public Health, which covers Henry County, told The Daily Beast.
“If you give it to the end of the week, we may be able to link some cases to this event,” added Folden, noting that it would have been difficult to trace before, considering the department wasn’t even aware of the mass gathering until asked about it. “We’re continuing to see higher numbers of cases in Henry County, but they also have the highest population in our district.”
As of Monday, the county had 8,262 cases and 133 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. About 609 of those cases were diagnosed in just the last two weeks, Folden explained.
To be clear, the COVID-19 data out of Georgia has come under intense scrutiny since the pandemic began, with experts in July claiming that Gov. Brian Kemp’s administration presented the state’s coronavirus dashboard data in a way that made it appear healthier than it was. One local magazine called the ensuing distrust in the state’s numbers “a disaster,” with others calling the numbers “a lie” designed to make a reopening look safer than it actually was.
Folden acknowledged that folks in many areas of her district have been reluctant to wear masks, and have been vocal about COVID fatigue. But she said it’s another thing entirely to throw a large, non-distanced event.
“It is frustrating when our staff are working around the clock to contact-trace and test. We know it doesn't just affect older people. It can affect everyone. It’s a pretty personal illness. Having had it myself, it attacks everyone just a little bit different,” said Folden.
Now, according to the students interviewed by The Daily Beast on Monday, others at neighboring schools have reached out to see how they can throw similar parties in the coming weeks, which they called “winter balls.”
“We all deserved a dance,” said one of the seniors interviewed by The Daily Beast. “We’ve been trying to help them.”
Unsurprisingly, Folden had one single piece of advice for parents thinking about throwing parties like this: “Please don’t. Please. Don’t.”
“There’s no way to know if one healthy teenager is going to be OK and one healthy teenager is going to end up in the hospital,” said Folden, who is based out of LaGrange, Georgia. “That is just too much of a risk.”
What’s more, while teens are less likely than older adults to die from the virus, they can still deal with long-term, debilitating health complications. And studies show they are just as likely to transmit it to others. Worse still, large events can kill those who aren't present, like the notorious wedding in Maine over the summer that led to 170 infections, killing at least seven people who did not even attend the event.
“We have encouraged people not to do this,” Folden said of the homecoming dance. “Policing is a bit more difficult. The only thing we would be able to do, if we were aware, is ask state patrol to make a drop-in visit, and—if the governor’s executive order is not being enforced, then they could assist us in asking people to close that down.”
“But again,” said Folden, “we can’t even do that if we don’t know it’s happening.”
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