Barrow County School System superintendent Chris McMichael announced Tuesday, Aug. 31, a “temporary” mask requirement for all schools and facilities, as the district continued to see an increase in positive coronavirus cases across its campuses amid soaring COVID-19 infection levels throughout county and state — and as administrators and other employees across the district have continued to be weighed down with contact-tracing efforts.
Effective Wednesday, Sept. 1, masks will be required indoors at all facilities and school buses, while any student with a valid medical note confirming they should not wear a mask will be excused from the policy, according to a letter sent by McMichael to students and families.
All students and staff currently quarantined as a close contact who are not positive for COVID-19 and are asymptomatic will be allowed to return to school as of Wednesday, McMichael said.
The announcement came less than two weeks after the district began implementing temporary mask mandates at campuses where 1% of the population tested positive for COVID-19. The list of facilities that reached that 1% threshold has quickly swelled during the ongoing COVID surge throughout the area.
“When the numbers of positive cases and related quarantines are at a manageable number system-wide, we will rescind the requirement,” McMichael said without providing a certain percentage.
The Georgia Department of Public Health on Tuesday confirmed another 68 COVID cases in Barrow County with a seven-day rolling average of 71.4 new daily cases with the highly contagious delta variant continuing to fuel that surge.
In its weekly data update Tuesday morning, the school district also reported another uptick in cases, disclosing that 174 students tested positive for the virus between Aug. 23-27 — up from 170 the previous week — with Apalachee High School continuing to be the hardest hit. As of Tuesday, there were 192 active positive cases among students, McMichael said.
Since the school year started Aug. 3, more than 4,400 students and 85 staff members have had to quarantine, McMichael said, adding that district officials have begun to see some slowing in numbers in a few schools that were already under a temporary mask mandate. Of those, Russell Middle, Winder Elementary, Bear Creek Middle — where mandates have been in effect for over a week — had slight drops, according to the district’s data.
District officials had made the decision not to begin the academic year with a mask mandate before the latest surge that began in late July, and McMichael in his letter attributed that decision to why so many students and staff have had to quarantine. Under state guidance, a person identified as a close contact of a person infected with COVID-19 can avoid quarantine if they and the infected person were over three feet away from each other and “properly masked,” McMichael said. The district is also now permitted to allow students who may have been within that 3-foot distance to quarantine in school while masked and asymptomatic, he said.
And while some school districts in northeast Georgia and across the state have announced temporary shifts to 100% virtual school, Barrow officials have maintained that they would attempt to avoid that step.
“We are continuously looking for better ways to balance keeping as many of our students and staff safe in face-to-face learning situations without shutting down schools and going virtual,” McMichael said. “With either option, the Department of Public Health expects us to adhere to their rules to provide the safest environment possible for our students and staff. The absolute last thing we want to see is going back to a total virtual school model.”
In his letter, McMichael said the decision was not driven by “emotion or politics,” seeking to distance the district from an issue that has become a political lightning rod with parents angrily berating school boards across the country in opposition to mask mandates and others criticizing school districts for not going far enough in their virus mitigation efforts.
“We all had high hopes that this school year would be one in which we would enjoy a semblance of normalcy after struggling through months of dealing with the impacts of COVID-19,” McMichael wrote. “Unfortunately, this has proven not to be the case. …This decision has been made to reduce the number of students being placed on at-home quarantines and to keep our classrooms and extracurricular opportunities safely open and available to our students. The other immediate option is to begin canceling extracurricular offerings and moving schools entirely to virtual learning as many other school districts are beginning to across our state. This is an action we are committed to avoiding to every extent possible.
“Please understand that arguments regarding masks, mask types and their levels of protection, vaccine efficiency, and variant impact, are not helpful to the decisions we need to make to keep our schools open on a daily and weekly basis. These are matters for medical experts and health department officials to research and recommend, not school boards or school staff and administrators. Nothing we do is intended to curtail anyone’s freedoms or rights. We are merely trying to keep our schools and programs open in the safest, healthiest way possible, based our own emerging data in conjunction with the vast majority of guidance we have available at the time from the health care community.”
McMichael noted the requirement is legal and pushed back against what he said were “heated and personal attacks” against school administrators by “members of the public.”
“(When those ‘personal’ attacks occur), however well-meaning those individuals may be in intent, our capacity to continue with our mission of educating our students is further degraded,” he said. “Please give us the space and grace to do our best to protect all our students and staff and to provide the best education we can in these difficult times.”