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School district to ‘temporarily’ require masks at all schools

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.”

Remembering Rev. Julius Mack -BNJ

Mainstreet Newspapers lost its brightest light last week with the death of Rev. Julius Mack.

Rev. Mack served as printing shop foreman where he oversaw printing operations of the newspapers and commercial printing operations for The Jackson Herald, later Mainstreet Newspapers. He recently celebrated his 50th anniversary of working at the firm.

Rev. Mack was a well-known member of the community who interacted with the public through both his job and his ministry at Bush River Baptist Church in Banks County.

Rev. Mack, 63, of Jefferson, died of complications of COVID-19 on the morning of Aug. 25 after being hospitalized for 10 days.

Services were held Monday, Aug. 30, in Jefferson. See Rev. Mack's full obituary on the obituary pages this week.

Employees and friends of Mainstreet Newspapers remembered Rev. Mack this week:

Helen Buffington: 

I have many fond memories of Julius but my favorite is of a chubby little guy whose round face was laced with smiles. His father, Mr. Jesse, worked at the newspaper and one day we found we needed someone to sweep and do similar chores. So I asked Mr. Jesse if he had any boys at his house who might be interested in working after school. He promised to get back to me. A few days later, Mr. Jesse walked in with this beaming little fellow. “This is my boy Julius,” he said. The cute lad was all of 13. Julius went to work at the newspaper as a floor sweeper. But over the years, he earned his way up the ladder to become our diligent and beloved shop foreman. RIP, Julius.

Sharon Hogan:

How do you come up with just one memory of someone you’ve worked with over 36½ years. For the first 35+ years I probably spent as much time with my work family as I did with my real family.

Julius and I were close to the same age, he has a son about my daughter’s age, he has grandchildren around the same age as my grandchildren. We had a lot in common to talk about over the years. We have watched our kids and grandkids grow up over the years we have worked together.

I have been through some rough times during my time working at MainStreet Newspapers and no matter the situation or how down I might be when I came in to work I could always count on Julius to greet me with a smile on his face and some encouraging words.

Julius was a man devoted to his family, his church family and MainStreet Newspapers. He truly was a shining light at work.

He was a friend you could count on and he was always willing to help. Many years ago as I was coming to work my vehicle broke down and I wasn’t able to get in touch with my husband who was also at work. After a while of being stranded on the side of Hwy. 11 I called the office and talked with Julius who was quick to offer to come and check to see if he could help me out. He was able to get my vehicle going and I made it to the office.

Julius was always willing to help those of us out who worked at the newspaper’s offices in other counties. I have worked at all the offices in the other counties and I have held many positions at the newspaper during my tenure and anytime I needed help or had a question all I had to do was call Julius and he would help me out.

Along with myself, my husband, daughter and mother have all worked for MainStreet Newspapers at some time throughout the years and one word we all used when talking about the recent passing of Julius Mack was dependability.

Ginger Mitchell:

After 15 years of working with Julius I would have to say his smile and love for God truly shined daily. Memories that will alway stood out to me is his candy box on his desk. I mean Julius had you set if you needed a candy bar. I am pretty sure no one could make meatballs like him either. But my favorite would be the crazy times we stood there shaking our heads when the printer stopped working again. However the way he said my name always brought the biggest smile to my face. Julius will truly be missed and the press room will never be the same.

Jimmy Usher:

Julius was such a nice person. I’ve known him all my life and we got along real fine. Working together at the office, anytime he asked me to do something, I always did it. He’d get on to me if I didn’t. He always made me laugh and we had fun together every morning. I’m going to miss him. I’ve been praying for his family, they’re all really nice people and Julius was a really nice person.

It feels like it isn’t real. I’m really going to miss him.

Scott Buffington:

Julius was something of a pioneer here at MainStreet. When he began working here in 1971, we were still printing in “hot type” the same way printing had been done for over 400 years since Gutenberg invented movable type.

Over the last five decades, Julius was part of the move from hot type to offset and then later, to digital printing. We take for granted today that you can buy a color printer and with a computer, print out a nice, shiny brochure, but in 1971, that was only a pipe dream for a small newspaper printing shop. Julius was part of that technological revolution and was one of a very few who knew all three processes.

He will not only be missed because of his unique skills here at the paper, but also because of his humble, kind nature. Whether he was working with his co-workers, the public or his family, he was always the same understanding person. He never let any crisis overwhelm him and was a stable influence when things went wrong. His smile and easy way was infectious. We’re all heartbroken because we lost a true brother and friend.

Zach Mitcham:

I think of the sound the press makes when it’s running full speed, and that’s the inhuman sound of what is happening. But for me, the human sound is the laughter. I’ve heard so much laughter out in that pressroom through the years. And “Big Mack” was usually the first face I saw, always greeting me with a smile, always looking to share a laugh. And beyond the laughter, he knew things, too. If you talked with him in any deep way, you could quickly see that this was a man of substance, who could talk to you about the hard things in life and do it in a helpful way. I will always remember our talks and how he was indeed a true friend to me — and to so many others who were blessed to know him. I will miss him, but I will always hear that laugh and smile.

Garnett Smith

I worked with Julius for over 35 years. We spent some long h ours on Wednesdays setting the papers out. We always filled in for each other when one of us wanted to take some time off from work. He had my back and I had his. We were truly friends and I truly enjoyed working with  him. He was a dear and loved friend and I will always think of him as part of my family. He will be truly missed, gone but not forgotten.

Detra Watson:

I lost my pastor, my friend and my boss man. He will be dearly missed.

Marti Mejias

When I remember Julius, I see his beautiful, kind and genuine smile that brought light into the room. Week after week, month after month, you knew that whatever the situation, Julius was going to be calm, practical and encouraging. He was an anchor even during the storms. And now, without a doubt, he is rejoicing in Heaven.

Angela Gary:

Earlier this year, I went to the funeral visitation for the mother of my friend and co-worker, Julius Mack. As I left, I hugged Julius and told him I loved him. I have worked with Julius for 37 years. I love Julius like family. I've seen him much more over the years than I've seen some of my family. He loves the Lord, he loves his wife, Laverne, and his children and grandchildren. He loves the church he pastors, Bush River Baptist Church. He loves The Jackson Herald, where he has worked since he was a young boy, and he loves the Jefferson Dragons. I'm still in shock that Julius is no longer with us. His death is heartbreaking to so many people in this community. He always had a smile on his face. I never saw him without that smile and I will miss it. When not in his work uniform, he was a sharp-dressed man. I loved seeing him in those colorful suits and telling him how good he looked. I put together the church items for the newspaper and he would bring me his church news including announcements for his monthly “What’s On Your Mind” program for young men. We would talk about how important it is to work with young men and prepare them for the challenges they will face. I am thankful I had the chance to tell Julius that I love him. It's something we don't do enough. We don't tell the people in our lives that we love them. You never know when they will be gone from your life. I know without a doubt that Julius is with the Lord now. I am sad for all of us who will miss him.

Brittany Truelove

I don’t have one favorite memory… but ever since I can remember stepping back into the press room, thick with the smell of fresh ink, Big Mack always had the biggest, happiest smile on his face! I don’t think I know what he looks like without a smile!

Debbie Castellaw:

He was just always constant. He was never moody, you did not have to worry when you needed to ask him for something that he would be grumpy. No, he always had that smile on his face. If he did not like something or disagreed, he would just look down and shake his head. He knew everything about MSN. He knew the building and who to call to fix something. He knew the vans, the route carriers, the reporters, all of the office staff. I jokingly referred to him as Mr. Jefferson. Everyone knew and loved him. He was bigger than life and without him at MSN there will be a huge hole that cannot be filled.  

Alex Buffington:

Rev. Julius Mack was always the first to arrive at the The Jackson Herald office. If you drove by the parking lot before sunrise on any given work day, you’d see Mr. Mack’s big red truck was already there, parked directly to the left of the back entrance of the building. Seeing that truck was always a signal that someone was there, the door was open, the lights were on, and it was going to be a good week. Rev. Mack was dependable in that way. Not just in being the first person at the office each morning, but in being that calm, steady light that always shined.

My favorite memory of Mr. Mack will always be the day Mike and I were married. The decision on who we wanted to officiate was a no-brainer. We picked a date, then went immediately to Rev. Mack to ask him to marry us. He agreed to do so before asking when the wedding date was. When we told him, he hesitated briefly and said he hoped the party would be short since that was his wife, Mrs. Laverne’s, birthday. Rev. Mack may have set a record for southern preachers that wedding day. The ceremony itself lasted five minutes at most.

But the most long-lasting memories of Mr. Mack will always be that bright red truck backed into his parking spot every work day; his calmness when someone would come in on a Wednesday morning and say they needed to redo a front page because a major incident had happened Tuesday night; and his smile, that was ever-present, no matter the circumstances. Rev. Mack was a steady light that shined behind-the-scenes at Mainstreet Newspapers. His heart was as big and bright as his red truck. He will be missed always.

Roy  Tarpkins

Rev. Mack and I go way back. I remember when he first pastored his first church, he invited me to come to his first church. They’d called him in so he asked me to take over on that day to offer the message because he’d made a prior appointment to another church, his own membership church, so I spoke in his place that day. I used him quite a bit at a church I’m a member at (Rogers Chapel Baptist Church off of Hwy. 98) and vice versa. We used one another. He preached at our church and I spoke at his church.

When I first moved to Jefferson, he was a little guy then. I didn't get to know him too well until right before he started pastoring.

We go back a long way. Whenever he’d go to Atlanta to preach and he’d ask me to go with him, we’d go out to eat together. We've had some good times together at revivals and programs with the church. He’s been a true friend.

He’s the most humble person I’ve ever met. He had a sweet spirit, the biggest smile. You could talk to him about anything and it wouldn’t go anywhere. I’m going to miss him. I pray for his family.

He’s going to be missed by his family, his church family and his work family. But he would want us to go on. I know he would have said it, “don’t worry about me.” He would have said those words. I feel like he got his life together.

He has no more pain. He’s going to receive this new body that Christ talked about, a bright, shiny, strong body; he doesn’t have to worry about disease anymore, that's all over for him.

I believe what the Bible says, that we’re going to see one another again. We’re going to see him again, we’re going to be together again. That’s what will keep his family and friends motivated, knowing that we will be together again. I’m looking forward for that day. I want to see the one who made it all possible, Jesus himself. I want to see the scars on his hands. Julius has already seen them. I miss my brother, but I know I’m going to see him again.

Susan Treadwell:

When I started to work for Mainstreet Newspapers my first impression of Mr. Julius was how friendly he was to me. The more interaction I had with him I learned that his positive attitude was very sincere. He had a way of making you feel reassured about any printing problem that you brought to him.

I looked forward to him bringing the Barrow Journal papers to the Winder office each week and starting my day with his cheerful personality. Both of our mothers were having health issues at the same time and we had many conversations about the importance of having family support and having faith that God was our biggest comforter in dealing with stressful times.

To me, Mr. Julius was the perfect example of a true Southern gentleman and how one person can make a difference in our workplace and in our lives. The more enriched we are by a person, the harder it is to let them go — This is going to be really hard. RIP Mr. Julius.

Scott Thompson:

If our papers are considered institutions within our communities, Julius was without a doubt the institution within the institution — the true backbone behind our effort to get the newspaper into readers’ hands every week.

I did not get the chance to know Julius for as long as most here, but I was grateful to have known him and had him steering the ship for the printing press. In this business, you meet a lot of great people, and Julius ranks near the top for me. His personality always filled up the room. And he never missed a chance to greet you sitting in the parking lot in his truck at the end of a work day and ask how you were doing.

Two memories that stand out to me would probably be the last two times I was around him. One, in June when we honored him for 50 years of service. I’m not nearly old enough to fathom working somewhere for 50 years. His level of dedication and love for his co-workers was admirable, and I was honored to be there to see him recognized. The second memory would be my last face-to-face interaction with him a few weeks ago in our parking lot. I was getting ready to head to Winder to cover a meeting and he was griping about a supply delivery driver who had shown up late and not done something right. But he did it all with a smile and had me cracking up.

Just a genuinely wonderful man, gone too soon and irreplaceable.

Susan Mobley:

I was fortunate to have known Rev. Julius Mack, one of the nicest people I have ever met. Julius always had a kind word and a smile for everyone. If you needed anything, he was there for you.

When my mother was sick, he asked about her often and he prayed for her recovery. He had words of comfort for me when she passed away. I will never forget his kindness.

Julius was a blessing to many and will always be remembered.

Ben Munro:

I met Julius when I was 19 and worked with him for over two decades.

Early on in my time at MainStreet Newspapers — when I was 19 or 20 — I spent a summer in Julius’ press room doing odd jobs to help get the papers printed. I was having a particularly tough go at it one afternoon while feeding inserts into the insert machine. The inserts continued to get jammed and my frustration was mounting. Finally, after the fourth or fifth jam and being the hot head that I am, I smacked a stack of inserts in exasperation.

Julius in friendly but make-no-mistake firm way told me, “Don’t get mad at it now.”

That was all he ever needed to say to me about it.

But mainly Julius and I talked a lot of local sports over years since that was my job for so long.

He’d often sit out in his truck for lunch and he’d catch me as I returned to the office from some assignment. He loved Jefferson and would often ask about an upcoming opponent, what a team’s chances were in the playoff bracket or just how good a certain player was he’d heard about.

Julius and I had plenty of those truck-side chats during the fall of 2020 as his Dragons made run to the state title game.

When you’re immersed in covering something for so long — like I was with sports — you sometimes tend not to want to talk about it all the time. But it was never that way with Julius. Not once. I always looked forward to those conversations.

I’m going to miss those talks, as I will the man who was so beloved by co-workers.

Vickie West

I have been thinking about what to say about Julius but there have been so many special times I’ve had with him, it’s hard to come up with just one.

If I ever needed prayer I could count on him to have prayer with me and keep my concerns to himself. He never shared what we talked about.

It’s been like losing a member of my own family.

I am going to miss him every day, especially when I walk in the doors here to the office.

County airport authority eyes $5M expansion project

The Barrow County Airport Authority hopes to take on an estimated $5 million expansion project in an effort to attract more businesses to the airport but is seeking the county’s involvement in helping pay back the debt on a construction loan for the work. The county’s return on investment, officials said, could mean more than double and even triple the amount of ad valorem taxes the county gets from airport use every year.

Phil Eberly of Lead Edge Design Group, the planning and engineering firm for the airport, told the county board of commissioners last week that plans are in place to construct a new taxiway and apron (tarmac) and two additional corporate hangars on the western end of the airport property in an open field next to the Zaxby’s hangar.

Under the proposal informally presented by Eberly to the BOC at its Aug. 24 meeting, the county would participate in paying back the projected $5 million loan by contributing an amount each year equal to the ad valorem tax money it would receive from the additional business at the airport.

The Barrow airport currently ranks seventh out of the state’s 103 public-use airports in with 111 aircraft based there as of last week, Eberly said. But with the airport’s current hangar space full, the authority is aiming for the expansion to accommodate high business demand and tenants looking to locate there. Eberle said tenants at airports in “neighboring counties” are eyeing a move to Barrow but did not elaborate on specifics. And while the airport receives federal funding from the FAA for projects, most of that stream of money is geared toward the main runway and likely won’t be available for the new taxiway and hangar space, Eberly said.

“We need to be creative to do this project,” he said.

The county has brought in about $1.3 million in tax revenue from the airport over the last five years at an average of roughly $258,000 per year during that span. With the additional business anticipated to be brought in with the expansion, that number would increase to an estimated $650,000 to $750,000 per year, Eberly said.

While the proposal for county assistance would not directly involve the county forgoing to additional debt, the county would contribute an amount equal to the new revenue, Eberly said. He said that one prospective tenant has made commitments to pay $200,000 toward the debt off the top and that the authority could negotiate with other potential tenants to do the same in order for the debt to be paid off more quickly.

County commissioners seemed generally supportive of the proposal last week as a way to help ease the county tax burden on homeowners. But a timeframe for when an actual agreement or memorandum of understanding for the arrangement will be presented to the board hasn’t been established. County manager Kevin Little said last week that the proposal was being reviewed by the county attorney's office. 

Eberly said the project could go out to bid this fall if the parties reach an agreement and that construction would take place next spring.

Dedication ceremony for 316/81 interchange set for Sept. 4

A dedication ceremony for the Highway 316/81 interchange in honor of the late Judy Loftin will be held 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 4, at W. Clair Harris Stadium on the campus of Winder-Barrow High School.

Loftin, who died in 2017, was a counselor for 30 years in the Barrow County School System with WBHS, Winder-Barrow Middle School and Bramlett Elementary School. She was a native of Barrow County and born and raised on a homestead on Punkin Junction Road near the site of the interchange that was completed and opened last fall.

The Georgia General Assembly in May approved a resolution to name the interchange the Judy Hill Loftin, LPC Memorial Interchange.