Walker County educators, leaders make another plea for stricter safety measures in schools

Staff photo by Tim Barber / Superintendent Damon Raines

Educators and school leaders in Walker County, Georgia, are once again asking the school board and the superintendent to implement stricter safety measures as COVID-19 continues to spread in the community.

About a dozen staff members with the school district attended Tuesday night's board meeting to show support for two speakers who signed up to give public comment. The message was that a number of teachers and staff members wish the district would do more to ensure safety for everyone in schools and consider reverting back to a hybrid learning model and issuing a mask mandate, among other things.

Bam Aven, a teacher at Chattanooga Valley Middle School, said the current federal guidelines recommend masks be worn by students and staff in a school setting. She also pointed out the troubles she and other educators have had with making sure students can socially distance in classrooms.

Aven told the board that it's difficult in her school to socially distance to 6 feet, even 3 feet, with a large number of students in classrooms.

"In the majority of our classrooms across the county, students are sitting within two feet of each other, the equivalent of the depth of a desktop," Aven said. "Our students and teachers would like for us to return to the hybrid model so that we have fewer students in the classroom at a time, and a bit more room to separate students."

In November, Walker County Schools closed all its campuses through Thanksgiving break as more than 100 students and teachers had tested positive for the coronavirus. When students returned, they did so using a hybrid version of at-home and in-school instruction through the holiday break. Once school resumed in January, students and staff returned to a full-time, in-school schedule.

Superintendent Damon Raines told the Times Free Press on Wednesday the expectation was that cases would see an uptick over the holidays as families got together, as expected by health officials around the nation.

There were 143 new COVID-19 cases in students and staff members in December. Two weeks later, the district had 55 active cases (6 were students learning from home) and more than 40 people were quarantined.

In its latest coronavirus report, released every Friday, there are 59 students and 22 staff members positive with COVID-19.

Cases in Walker County spiked on Jan. 6 with 115 new cases, but since then the seven-day moving average has steadily declined.

Raines said the number of confirmed cases will dictate change by the school district and that a plan to go hybrid is in place and will be used when necessary. The current numbers, he said, don't warrant a need to go fully hybrid.

He also said he doesn't see a path for the district to "force" people to wear masks.

"It's an expectation, from my perspective, is that we continue to stress how important it is to strongly recommend that masks are being worn by adults and students," he said. "We're not going to force that on anyone because there's a lot of additional components to that that we just don't want to get into."

Aven said Rossville Middle School was the only school in the district with adequate mask wearing. Raines agreed and said Rossville Middle has been exceptional and that the administration at the school has gotten behind a strong campaign advocating for masks.

"Students are not wearing masks in our classrooms, nor in the hallway, nor on the bus here in Walker County, and our parents need to know that," Aven said. "Our substitutes and Walker County employees are not all wearing masks, and our parents need to know that."

Debbie Baker, president of the Walker County Association of Educators, made it a point to let school board members know they have the authority to issue a mask mandate. Baker told the Times Free Press after the meeting that she had been told the board did not have the power to do that under state law.

"I have heard many excuses why Walker County Schools cannot mandate masks, none of which are true," Baker said. "Except that masks go against the political beliefs and views."

For more information on the district's reopening plan and safety guidelines, visit walkerschools.org.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.