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Dalton Public Schools has announced it will change its COVID-19 policies in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and its highly contagious delta variant.

During a special meeting early Wednesday morning, the board of education voted 5-0 to approve a resolution adapting its COVID-19 policies.

In doing so, it established a tiered system for planning its COVID response, moving immediately into the tier for moderate risk. That phase makes masks mandatory for students in prekindergarten through seventh grade — students who are not yet old enough to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.

Students in higher grade levels will not be required to mask, although they will be strongly encouraged to do so.

Masks will be mandated for all students on school buses, where social distancing is difficult due to space constraints.

Parents will have the chance to opt their children out of masking requirements, requests that must be approved by the child's school principal and superintendent. Similarly, staff members may be granted permission not to wear masks by Superintendent Tim Scott.

Scott said the policy will likely be implemented by Friday or will start by Monday at the latest.

Under the new policy, Dalton Public Schools will follow a tiered response plan to attempt to mitigate the spread and other negative effects of the virus. Which tier the school system is in will be determined based on the rate of community spread, as determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines.

The first and second tier are for low and moderate community spread. From there, schools will be looked at individually to determine whether there is a need to move them into the phases with the strictest guidelines, Tier 2 and Tier 3.

Individual schools with 2% or more of the total school population impacted over a five-day period will enter into Tier 2. The board did not outline what, exactly, would trigger Tier 3, which moves all Dalton Public Schools students to hybrid or virtual instruction. Superintendent Scott said the district "reserves the right" to enter Tier 3 at any time, based on any combination of factors.

These are the specifics of the first three tiers:

— The school system will fall into Tier 0 when there is low community spread of the virus. In Tier 0, Dalton Public Schools will sanitize school buses twice daily, clean schools daily, use ecovasive antimicrobial spray in buildings every 90 days, provide acrylic desk shields to students upon request, provide hand sanitizer and masks, encourage social distancing of at least 3 feet during school lunchtimes, emphasize the importance of washing hands and follow standard contact tracing and quarantine guidelines already in place at all schools and facilities.

— Currently, the school system is moving to Tier 1, for moderate community spread. In this phase, Dalton Public Schools will do the following in addition to continuing the cleaning and safety measures from Tier 0: Ask students health screening questions at the start of the school day, during homeroom and again after lunch; restrict visitors and guests to the schools, except by appointment; require masks on school buses for all students; require masks for students in seventh grade and below with opt-out available upon request by a parent or guardian; and make efforts to ensure social distancing of three feet or greater between students.

— An individual school can be triggered up to Tier 2 if 2% or more of its students and staff test positive for COVID-19, as indicated by a 5-day average. In that phase, the school system will: Prohibit visitors from all district buildings; provide lunch in classrooms, instead of the cafeteria, to encourage social distancing; and carry over all policies and procedures implemented during previous phases, such as enhanced cleaning measures.

The decision by Dalton Public Schools to require masks comes just two days after the city of Dalton entered into a state of emergency in response to the increasing number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Whitfield County.

Based on the most recent data from Dalton Public Schools released on Friday, the school system had 35 students and 16 staff members test positive for COVID-19 since the start of the school year.

Contact Kelcey Caulder at kcaulder@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.

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