Six-year-old Audrey Gard will head to first grade next week wearing a mask. It’s a precaution her mom believes will help to minimize the chances of her getting coronavirus.
But the Gwinnett County School District, north of Atlanta, is making masks optional for now, and Sara Holton Gard fears that could leave her family caught in the middle.
“I’m confident in her wearing a mask at school,” Holton Gard says of her daughter. “But I don’t have confidence that the rest of the kids will. And that makes me very nervous …
“I worry that she’s going to get into school, come home one day and say nobody’s wearing their masks and I’m going to say then I have to pull you out of school.”
That would mean Holton Gard’s husband would have to drop out of the workforce to help handle schooling duties again, similar to last year, a situation she called “unsustainable.”
Having parents decide, albeit with a “strong recommendation” for masks from Gwinnett, is one of a patchwork of school mask policies taking shape across the nation that are already confusing and upsetting families and staff as the school year approaches.
The district believes its approach is “the best way to handle things at this particular time,” said Bernard Watson, director of community and media relations for Gwinnett County Public Schools, which is the state’s largest school district.
“We understand that people are concerned about this virus and (it) is causing tremendous harm and pain across this nation for the last couple of years,” he said. “So again, we are encouraging everyone who is who’s eligible for the vaccine to get vaccinated. And we’re encouraging people to wear masks, we’re recommending strongly recommending that people wear masks when they come into our buildings.”
While Holton Gard appreciates that recommendation, she believes it doesn’t go far enough and will create problems at school.
“I think that it leaves so much up to our teachers who are already trying to manage our classrooms of 25 and 30 students, and ‘strongly encouraged’ isn’t a rule,” she says. “So, give the students a rule so that the teachers can enforce a rule. If the rule is everyone wears a mask, that would make me very happy, it would make me more comfortable with sending my child to in person school, and it would follow public health guidelines.”
Districts and parents take stands
The debate about how schools should handle Covid-19 protocols has been a divisive issue in Gwinnett County and across the country. School districts, parents, health departments and state officials are grappling with how to return students to classrooms safely at a time when the Delta variant is driving a surge in cases across the country and while younger students are still unable to be vaccinated.
Atlanta Public Schools and DeKalb County schools, just south of Gwinnett, have taken a different tactic. Masks are being mandated for students.
That piecemeal approach has been frustrating for parents throughout Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp declined to issue state guidance but signed an executive order restricting schools from using the state’s public health emergency as a reason for their decisions.
“We’re doing (a mask mandate) out of an abundance of caution to make sure that all our children and our staff are safe,” said DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris. “We know that there’s a lot of divide, that there are some people who want masks, people who don’t want masks. But my job as the CEO or head educator of our school district is to make sure that I remove as many barriers as possible to make sure that our teachers feel safe, that our families feel safe, and most importantly, our children are back in school ready to learn.”
Schools in the nation’s three biggest school districts – New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago – will be requiring masks when the school year begins this fall. But others, like Houston, Texas, and Miami-Dade County and Hillsborough County in Florida, are among those who are making masks optional for students.
Vocal opponents to mask mandates have led to raucous school board meetings in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and Barrington, Illinois.
Virginia Beach parents argued to the school board last week there should be no mask mandate because of data around children being relatively safe from severe Covid-19 and the fact that masks are no longer required in most other indoor places in the state.
“Masks are optional almost everywhere that our children play, where they live, where their parents work, it’s optional. And yet, we’re still requiring them to be masked in our school buildings?” said mother Lori Sharp.
The meeting was stopped at one point because the debate had gotten so heated. School board members said they’re following the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Virginia’s health commissioner when they decided to mandate masks.
At the end of the more than four-hour meeting, the Virginia Beach school board voted against a motion which would make mask-wearing in school optional for the upcoming school year. The board voted 6-4 against the effort, keeping masks mandatory for the district’s 63,000 students and more than 4,000 teachers in September. But that can still change before school reopens.
In Barrington, Illinois, children were among the speakers who asked to not wear masks. Others at the meeting wanted the school to follow guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommended last week universal masking in schools of everyone over the age of 2, regardless of vaccination status. The CDC recently updated its school guidance, saying everyone 2 and older who is not fully vaccinated should wear a mask indoors.
That meeting finished without a decision on the mask policy.
Watson-Harris, the Dekalb County superintendent, said she understands the varying views on the mask issue and that administrators are trying their best to come up with solutions that put safety first but take into consideration many diverse views.
“I’ve heard from some parents that they are uncomfortable with their child wearing a mask all day, they don’t think that there’s science that supports the decision,” she said. “But to that end, we’re working in mask breaks. We’re working in times for children to go outside as much as possible and be socially distant, to remove their masks. We’re trying to take all of those things into consideration. But that’s the primary pushback, that they just don’t think that there’s science that supports the decision for mandatory masks. They think that the children are uncomfortable, and then they’re worried about that.”
Keeping up with changes
Mandating masks is not the sole point of contention in schools around the country. The issue of testing policies, what levels of community spread could trigger shutting down a school, and policies related to how schools will quarantine children or classmates if there are positive cases have become another point of disagreement.
Children returned to Chandler Unified Schools last week, the second largest school district in Arizona. The first day went “exceedingly well,” according to a spokesman for the district.
“Our students and staff have protocols down,” said Terry Locke, director of community relations for the district. “It was last year that was so challenging, because it was so new to us.”
But the district’s protocols are still changing. Chandler Unified updated its quarantine policy as of Monday, making quarantining optional for students with known exposure to Covid-19.
The school district said the changes were directly related to an edict from Gov. Doug Ducey’s office last week, which told two other school districts to withdraw their policy of requiring unvaccinated students to quarantine if they were exposed to Covid, saying it was against state law. Those schools said through a lawyer they disagreed with the governor. The issue has yet to be resolved.
Masks are optional for the Chandler Unified for now, but that is also subject to change depending on the local transmission levels in Maricopa County. The district also said it will “maintain a heightened awareness of students and staff behavior regarding mask bullying.”
Most schools have said they will continue to evaluate the transmission rates and community spread and have said the situation will remain fluid throughout the year.
In first-grader Audrey’s Gwinnett County school district, it’s already a change from last academic year when students who returned to in-person school were all required to mask up.
Audrey’s mother says she understands the anger coming from parents who disagree with her, especially after a frustrating year for families juggling schooling from home.
“But I also have to say, look, public health says anyone who’s not vaccinated needs to be wearing a mask all the time in public,” Holton Gard says.
She says when her family made the decision to choose in-person learning in April, she was feeling good about declining Covid-19 levels and hoped the majority of eligible Georgians would be vaccinated.
Only 40% of Georgia residents have been fully vaccinated, according to the Georgia Health Department. Holton Gard is concerned about the surge in cases from the Delta variant.
And she’s grown exasperated with her school board and their decision not to mandate masks. But she will do the best she can to help her daughter Audrey ease into the first grade
“I’m very frustrated. I’m out of patience at this point,” she says. “But as the parent I have to put on the brave face, convince my children that we’re doing this and we’re all in this together. But on the inside, I’m frustrated. I’m furious.”