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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Justin Wilkins, left, has an exchange with school board member Rhonda Thurman before the start of the school board meeting Thursday. The Hamilton County School Board held a meeting Thursday, August 19, 2021, at the Hamilton County Department of Education.

The percentage of students opted out by their parents from the mask requirement in Hamilton County Schools ranges from less than 1% on some campuses to more than 50% on others, according to district data as of Wednesday.

The districtwide average of opt-outs is 13.49% of students — up from Monday's average of about 10%.

As of Wednesday, Sale Creek Middle/High School has an opt-out rate above 50% of students, and other schools with more than one-third of students opting out are Sequoyah High School, Soddy Daisy High School, Loftis Middle School, Soddy Daisy Middle School and Signal Mountain Middle/High School.

On the opposite end, several elementary and middle schools reported no opt-outs at all: Barger Academy, Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy, Clifton Hills Elementary, East Lake Elementary, Hardy Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Tyner Middle Academy.

The schools with the highest mask compliance are in Chattanooga neighborhoods such as Brainerd, Orchard Knob and Tyner — many in areas that were severely affected by COVID-19 last year.

Differences in students masking were visible on the first day of school, with virtually every student wearing masks at Orchard Knob Middle School compared to a mix of masked and unmasked students at Soddy Daisy High School.

The district spent much of the summer saying that it would recommend, but not require, masks with the new school year. But last week, officials changed course and announced a mask mandate — with an opt-out option for parents that was not offered last year.

Soon after, Gov. Bill Lee issued an executive order saying such opt-outs would be required statewide, for any district with a mask requirement. His actions came as COVID-19 cases surged with the delta variant of COVID-19, straining hospitals across the state. The variant is fueled by unvaccinated Tennesseans. The state ranks 43rd in the nation in vaccinations, with 40% fully vaccinated, according to Becker's Hospital Review.

Hamilton County Schools' mask policy is taking heat from parents and community members both in favor of and opposed to students wearing masks. Some parents called for a universal masking requirement for students in virtual news conferences this month, while others told school board members after a board meeting that students should have to opt in, not opt out, for masks.

Parents and community members on both sides of the debate came to the Hamilton County Board of Education meeting Thursday, referencing science as the reasoning behind their viewpoints.

Parent Talia Welsh, whose child attends Normal Park Museum Magnet School, wore a mask and carried a sign that read "Keep all kids safe, no exceptions." She said the science supports wearing masks.

"I also want to say as a working parent, I'd like to be able to continue to go to work, and we already have more cases of people in quarantine for COVID in four days than we had in four months last fall," Welsh said. "So it's really important both for our economy, for children's safety, for the safety of teachers, the stability of the health care system, to enforce a mask mandate."

Hamilton County resident Jon Baker held a sign reading "Parental rights matter. Leave our kids alone" and has attended board meetings in the past. He did not wear a mask and said science does not support masks.

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Mask compliance varies by campus at Hamilton County Schools

"Very simply, the mask science isn't there. Viruses pass through the mask without any problem whatsoever," he said. "So if you're not stopping the virus, then what is the point of wearing it?"

According to a recent review of COVID-19 transmission data led by Jeremy Howard of the Data Institute at the University of San Francisco, "The preponderance of evidence indicates that mask-wearing reduces transmissibility per contact by reducing transmission of infected respiratory particles in both laboratory and clinical contexts."

The study went on to warn, "Public mask-wearing is most effective at reducing spread of the virus when compliance is high."

Children age 12 and older qualify for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and about 30-40% of people aged 12-20 are vaccinated in the state, according to the district.

In a virtual COVID-19 town hall last month — where most questions centered around masks and the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine — Dr. Stephen Adams of CHI Memorial told Hamilton County Schools families that vaccines are safe and effective, and first-dose vaccination rates began rising in Hamilton County in early August due to the rise of the delta variant.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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