Georgia school district opens this week with no mask mandate, prompting debate: 'The risk is real'

Korin Miller
·9 min read

Summer is far from over, but one small school system in Georgia is preparing to open its doors this week. Jefferson City Schools in Jefferson, Ga., will resume in-person learning on Friday without a mask mandate despite continual spikes in COVID-19 cases in the state. At the same time, other school districts in the state have pushed back school start dates or have scheduled remote learning.

Jackson County, where the school district is located, has 819 confirmed cases of the virus as of Tuesday, according to data from the Georgia Department of Public Health. Surrounding areas are also dealing with their own outbreaks. Georgia currently has 175,052 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the state’s Department of Public Health.

In an FAQ posted online, the school district said it will not mandate face masks in schools. “However, we strongly encourage and recommend that students and staff members wear masks whenever social distancing is not possible in our schools,” the FAQ reads. Face coverings will also be required on buses, according to the FAQ, and reusable cloth masks will be provided to students and staff members.

The school system, in which 3,791 students are enrolled, also said it is taking steps to “maximize social distancing to minimize the spread of the virus,” pointing out that it has arranged student desks to face the same direction and that it will have students sit on the same side at a table “where feasible.”

Donna McMullan, superintendent of Jefferson City Schools, told Yahoo Life that she and her staff are aware that school will be different this year. “We know that we will not return to our buildings conducting business as usual,” she says. “Things will be different for our staff and students, but we are committed to supporting them and providing a safe and healthy learning environment for all.”

Papers on desks by window in classroom at university
Schools in Jefferson, Ga., will resume in-person learning on Friday without a mask mandate despite continual spikes in COVID-19 cases in the state. (Getty Images)

McMullan says that school leaders met with local and state health officials as well as medical professionals “on a regular basis” to create policies and procedures that aligned with guidance from the Georgia Department of Education, Georgia Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC states online that cloth face coverings are “strongly encouraged” to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Though face masks aren’t required, aside from on school buses, McMullan says they are “strongly recommended at all times” in school. “We expect all staff and students to wear a face covering during class transitions, afternoon dismissal and other times when social distancing isn’t feasible,” she says.

Face mask requirements have been a point of contention in Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp is suing Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms over her attempt to mandate masks in her city.

McMullan said the school system wants students to know that “their safety is top priority. We must all do our part in keeping each other safe — wearing face coverings, socially distancing and proper handwashing. We are committed to meeting their needs and will adjust our plans as needed to ensure the safety and overall well-being of staff and students.”

Christopher Whitworth, principal at the school district’s Jefferson Academy for students in third, fourth and fifth grade, tells Yahoo Life that he’s “incredibly proud” of staff for the planning they’ve done to prepare for in-person learning. “Personally, I’m ecstatic to see children back in our building doing what they do best, which is learning alongside teachers who are continually passionate about what they do each and every day,” he says.

Whitworth, whose children also attend Jefferson City Schools, said, “I want our community to know that I plan to treat their children the way I treat my children. We are a family in Jefferson and take care of each other.”

But the lack of a mask mandate is a sticking point for some

A Change.org petition that has more than 1,000 signatures is asking for the school system to require face masks instead of simply encouraging their use. “There are many students and teachers that are at great risk if they contract the coronavirus. It is the responsible and safe thing to do to make masks required at our schools,” the petition read.

“The administrators claim to care about the students yet risk the lives of everyone, even the teachers, because they simply don’t want to put in the effort. Absolutely shameful,” one person wrote in the comments. “If you actually care about your students and staff, require face masks to be worn,” another said.

A competing Change.org petition with nearly 250 signatures is in support of the current mask policy, noting, “People decide if they wear [the] mask or not.”

“Only liberals can get rona and I’m not a liberal TRUMP2020 no mask [for] me,” one signer wrote in the comments. “I sign because in no wording of our Constitution or Bill Of Rights does it say that all my rights will stop if the government deems them to be a threat. No! I have the God given right to wear a mask if I want or to educate myself on the threat foretold and not wear a mask. The End,” another person commented.

Dana Phillips, who has three children in the school district, told Yahoo Life that though she prefers in-person learning, she is not thrilled with the lack of a mask mandate. “There are rising cases of COVID-19 in our community and surrounding counties,” she says. “Most families here commute to areas with high case counts. The risk is real.”

Phillips said it’s “fascinating” that masks are mandated on school buses but not in schools. “I don’t see how having them mandatory in the classroom is any different than having them be mandatory on the bus,” she says.

Online learning offered by the school system is an option, but it can be tricky for some families, including those with students on an advanced-placement (AP) track, Phillips said. “There are families that have kids in six AP classes,” she says. “That’s hard to do online.”

She’s mostly concerned that a student, teacher or loved one will contract the virus and die. “The ramifications that can have on students is pretty long-lasting,” says Phillips, whose children will “absolutely” be wearing masks to school. “We have one for every day of the week, and we have a decontamination zone in the garage. We’re actually following the advice of health care professionals.”

What do doctors think?

It’s going to be “very challenging” to do in-person schooling when all of the recommended steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 aren’t in place, Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. The Jefferson City school district is near Atlanta, where case counts are high, he points out. “It’s likely they will have some transmission in the schools, and they will have to cope with that,” he says.

“Hopefully, even though it’s not mandated, you’ll see a high level of compliance with mask recommendations,” Adalja says.

Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life that students, teachers and staff should still wear a mask, even though it’s not officially required. “Masks are crucial to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” he says. “If parents decide to send their kids to these schools, then they should definitely have them wear one.”

Adalja says that there are “valid concerns” about opening schools for in-person learning where COVID-19 cases are increasing. “It’s important to look at regional data when making a decision to open schools,” he says. “In this particular situation, there is enough data to suggest this is going to be a challenging prospect, especially when you have contention over masks.”

The situation in Jefferson City Schools isn’t unique, and parents may face a similar status quo elsewhere. “If you’re worried about your school’s guidelines, many have options for online learning,” Adalja says. He stresses that the data supports that healthy children are “largely spared the consequences” of COVID-19, and data has been mixed on how much children tend to spread the virus to people in the community. Research has found that children under the age of 10 are less likely to spread the virus to others, while those over the age of 10 are just as likely to spread the virus as adults. Still, Adalja says, it’s not entirely clear at this point what may happen once in-person schooling resumes — especially if CDC guidelines aren’t followed.

“The situation is very fluid, and everyone is hoping that the curve starts to flatten,” Watkins says.

Video: Here is everything you need to know about the different masks on the market today.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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