Masks are back in Hamilton County Schools, but not for some

Expert says requirement with opt-out 'sounds like a recommendation rather than an obligation or a mandate'

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Orchard Knob Middle School sixth grade students wear masks as they line up to go into Melanie Raybon's classroom. Orchard Knob Middle School started the 2021-2022 school on Aug. 12, 2021, amid a surge in the delta variant of the coronavirus.

When Hamilton County Schools returned to the classroom Thursday, nearly all the students at Orchard Knob Middle were wearing face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Eighteen miles north, at Soddy Daisy High School, roughly half the students went without the protective measure deemed necessary by leading medical organizations.

Starting Monday, Hamilton County Schools will require students to wear face coverings indoors - while allowing parents to opt them out. The dual approach was the district's answer to try and curtail the spread of COVID-19 in the face of the highly contagious delta variant while giving parents freedom to choose.

The opt-out concept represents a variation from typical public health efforts, which require some level of individual sacrifice for the purpose of protecting the health of the community.

Peter Jones, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said that the district's decision to require masks but allow a parental opt-out reflects schools trying to address a health and political crisis that they never wanted.