Madison County schools haven’t had as many COVID-19 cases as many anticipated. Now, some local parents say it’s time to remove or at least relax mask requirements at county schools. But others say the masks have played a part in the low number of cases, and they don’t want any policies changed right now.
County school board members heard both sides at a Tuesday meeting, but the group didn’t take a vote and will deliberate on the matter.
Several speakers took the podium Tuesday. Some wore masks. Some didn’t. The room was a mix. Seats were spaced six feet apart, including at the board table where members didn’t wear masks. Madison County schools have a policy of requiring masks when social distancing is not possible, which includes most classrooms.
Deana Ollis, a parent who is employed at a local hospital, said there is a lot of confusion and frustration among many parents about masks and quarantine policies.
“Students are suffering from both of those,” she said of the policies.
Ollis said it’s time for the school board to review the policies that were set this summer to get students back in school. She said transmission rates are low among children, noting that the COVID-19 cases in Georgia among those under 17 constitute less than 10 percent of the total cases. She said school systems outside of Madison County aren’t suffering from high case rates, even without masks.
“A lot of schools outside of Madison County are not wearing masks and some of them have had less positive than we’ve had,” she said.
Ashley Waller, another Madison County parent, echoed what Ollis said, adding that “masks aren’t healthy for our kids.” She said the masks get dirty and that there is bacterial buildup, which can lead to bacterial pneumonia. She said kids need to be able to see smiles and to know the faces of their classmates and teachers.
“Teachers and students don’t know what each other’s faces look like,” she said. “…Kids are being sent home due to headaches. They’re not getting the right flow of oxygen.”
Ollis asked the school board to develop a way out of the current policies.
“We would like to see the board come up with an exit strategy to remove the masks,” she said, adding that she didn’t want to see students lose the option of wearing a mask. “But we would like to see an option for our students not to wear masks.”
Others urged the board not to abandon the mask policy that they say is having a positive effect.
Madison County High School media specialist Christie Haggard spoke to the board about her family’s experience recently with COVID-19. She said some people struggle mightily with the illness, including her family.
“This virus is not bad for some, but I was not that lucky,” she said. “I spent weeks watching my little boy, 9 years old, struggle to even walk to the restroom, crying and begging, ‘Mommy, please make this go away.’”
Haggard said she also hit with the illness.
“I spent five weeks myself barely able to walk,” she said. “I spent five weeks unable to be around my family and five weeks unable to simply pat my children on the head. I wasn’t even as sick as many of those who have been hospitalized or worse.”
Haggard spoke of the lingering symptoms: difficulty breathing, leg cramps, nerve pain, fatigue and headaches.
She urged the school board to keep the policy.
“I realize many may disagree with me and that is OK,” she said. “I have just been there, and if my words can prevent even one student, teacher, or one person from catching this nasty virus, then it is worth voicing my opinion.”
High school teachers Trevor Mangan and Trent Wilkes both asked the school board to keep the current policies in place.
Mangan noted that it’s impossible to social distance in classrooms, and he said students and staff who have a weakened immune system are reliant on others to wear masks to protect them. He said he is proud of how his students have responded and he wants to see school remain in-person, which he said is best for the students.
“The measures have succeeded and we need to maintain these policies,” he said.
Wilkes said the masks are important in keeping others safe. He noted that a fellow staff member undergoing chemotherapy doesn’t need to be made more vulnerable by the elimination of masks. He said he has had positive cases in his class and that the virus hasn’t spread. He says masks play a key role in stopping that spread. He said he also values the masks personally, because it gives him peace of mind when taking groceries to his grandparent.
Madison County parent Jeane Wilkinson said her son suffers from a congenital heart issue and is very comforted by his fellow students wearing masks and helping keep him safe. She said she’s not sure if he can continue in-person learning at the high school if the policy is reversed. Wilkinson said her son has aspirations in the medical field and takes three AP classes. She said some of the coursework he needs for college isn’t available through the online Gradpoint program. She said a policy reversal will hurt him academically.
“I respectfully ask you to leave this in place until the CDC no longer recommends them (masks),” she said.
MCHS students Burke Booth and Teresa Vu also asked the board to keep the policies in place. Vu talked about the effectiveness of the masks in limiting the passing of respiratory droplets. Booth said that if masks are taken away, it’s likely that classes will end up going online. He said the act of wearing a mask is a selfless one.
School board chairman Robert Hooper thanked the speakers for their presentations and said no decision would be made Tuesday.
“We will definitely talk about what you presented,” he said.