Leaders in several North Georgia school districts have in recent days announced changes to masking and other COVID-19 policies as vaccine hesitancy and the highly contagious delta variant fuel a spike in positive cases and hospitalizations across the region.
In Dade County, students will be on a hybrid instructional schedule starting Thursday following rollout of a three-phase COVID-19 response plan focusing on limiting community spread of the virus. Schools in Whitfield County, Georgia, began mandating masks for students and staff on Tuesday, and a similar requirement is in place at nearby Dalton Public Schools.
The mask mandates are the result of guidance published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on July 27 that recommended all people — even those who have been vaccinated — wear masks indoors in K-12 schools.
As enacted in the Chattanooga area, the mandates have been imposed with the promise that parents or guardians can opt their children out of the requirement, a move some North Georgia parents worry renders the requirement essentially useless.
LeighAnn Doss, whose daughter is enrolled in pre-kindergarten classes at Dalton Public Schools, said she believes students and staff in schools should be required to wear masks indoors at all times with no option to get out of the mandate.
"Caring about others shouldn't be something that people can 'opt out' of," Doss said. "Masks only help if everyone wears them. They are not for your own protection. They're for the protection of those around you."
Melinda Long, a parent with children in Murray County Schools, said she knows most people think the decision to wear masks should be left up to parents. She doesn't think that is fair or responsible, and she said she wishes more people saw things from her side.
"It's all too political now. People aren't thinking. What people are saying when they tell you to leave it up to the parents is, 'Leave your kids' health up to other people's parents,'" Long said. "My kids have to go to school there, so if your kid is in class with them not wearing a mask, your decision puts them at risk too."
Other parents and community members like Bill Wells, whose children graduated from Murray County Schools, have received both vaccination shots and wear masks when they go out, and yet still don't want the requirement to be enforced at schools unless there is a way for parents to have the final say on what happens with their children. For him, the issue is consistency. Wells said he feels that public health officials continually move the bar for what's expected where COVID-19 is concerned, and he said he doesn't think asking students and teachers to wear masks without "major studies" showing masks work to protect them is dangerous.
"The reason for all this confusion is because all these things have no valid scientific studies. They are all just opinions," Wells said.
When asked about CDC studies that found mask-wearing reduces the risk of new infections, Well said: "They've told us so many different things would protect people. They said wear gloves. Turns out that was not correct. Then they put up partitions. Then they said that didn't work. After a few times of saying we need masks and then that we don't, they decide we need the N95 mask. Turns out that is no better than any plain old mask. I just don't know what to think or do."
Logan Boss of the Georgia Department of Public Health's Northwest Health District, said that whether or not masks will be allowed in schools remains up to the school districts themselves. But he said parents call his offices regularly with questions about what exactly they are supposed to be doing to best protect themselves and their children. Wells, he said, is not alone in his confusion over which guidance is the right guidance to follow.
To those people, Boss recommends following guidelines that have long been endorsed by both the Department of Public Health and the CDC. Among those are masking indoors and in crowds where the vaccination status of others is unknown, hand washing, social distancing and respiratory etiquette, such as covering your mouth during a sneeze or cough.
"We recommend, No. 1, that people get vaccinated. We are seeing a tremendous surge in cases and hospitalizations in North Georgia and indeed throughout the state and country. Almost 100% of these cases and hospitalizations are in people who have not been vaccinated, so first and foremost we encourage that, as we always have," Boss said. "How schools choose to handle masking is up to them. We are not getting involved in that, but we recommend people mask as well."
Contact Kelcey Caulder at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.
NORTH GEORGIA SCHOOL MASK POLICIES
Masking policies for North Georgia school districts, as of Tuesday afternoon:
— Whitfield County Schools: Masks are required for schools and staff in Whitfield County Schools when social distancing is not possible. All schools will have masks on hand for those who need one. Parents who prefer their student not wear a mask should contact their child's school to opt out.
— Dalton Public Schools: Because the school system is experiencing moderate community transmission of the virus, masks are required on all Dalton Public Schools buses and are required for all pre-kindergarten through seventh grade students unless they have been opted-out by their parents. Students in grades eight and up are strongly encouraged to mask. Staff at all Dalton Public Schools are required to mask currently, except with permission from the superintendent. Masks would not be required if community spread returned to a lower level.
— Catoosa County Public Schools: Superintendent Denia Reese said she is monitoring the situation at every school in the district to make sure guidance is geared correctly toward addressing the needs of each school, which is why some Catoosa County Public Schools have closed their doors already while others have not. However, the general rule she said is as follows: Masks are required on school buses and in hallways during transitions between classes.
— Dade County Schools: As in Catoosa County, COVID-19 guidance is adjusted depending on need at each school. Students at Dade Middle School and Dade County High School will be on a hybrid schedule through Sept. 10. Students at Davis Elementary School will also be on a hybrid model until this Friday. Upon return to school Monday, all students will be encouraged to wear masks but they will not be required.
— Walker County Schools: Walker County Schools students will be learning from home this Thursday and Friday, and will transition to a hybrid learning model beginning Monday. They will remain on a hybrid learning schedule until Sept. 17, at which point new guidance will be released. Walker County Schools recommends but does not require masking in its buildings for students or staff.
— Chickamauga City Schools: Masks are encouraged but not required for students and staff.
— Chattooga County Schools: Masks are encouraged but not required for students and staff.
— Trion City Schools: Masks are encouraged but not required for students and staff.
— Murray County Schools: Students in Murray County will not return to school until Sept. 7. There is no plan in place to require masks for students and staff.
— Gordon County Schools: Masks are optional for all students and staff in school buildings, on school buses and at extracurricular activities. Masks will be provided for free to those who request them.
— Calhoun City Schools: The use of masks is expected on school buses, during hallway transitions, at arrival or dismissal holding areas for students arriving to or leaving from school and at other times "where social distancing may not be feasible," according to the district's website.