Coronavirus, Education

In Cherokee County, Some Urge School Board To Consider Student Mask Mandate

Some community members urged the Cherokee County school board to require students to wear masks in schools to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Some community members urged the Cherokee County school board to require students to wear masks in schools to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Credit Martha Dalton / WABE

Three Cherokee County high schools had to stop in-person learning recently due to positive cases of COVID-19. Students and teachers at those schools have shifted to remote learning.

The closures have ramped up pressure from some parents for the district to require students to wear face coverings in schools.

An Unmasked Request

Masks are required for staff but only recommended for students. Christopher Masak told the school board last week that’s one reason his kids are learning remotely this fall.

“The fact that there is a lack of a mask mandate in schools is exceptionally frustrating for us at this point in time,” Masak said. “We see the numbers coming out of Alabama and South Carolina, places where there have been mask mandates through the state, we see massive drops in the spread of COVID.”

Alabama issued a statewide mandate. South Carolina hasn’t, but places in the state that have required face coverings have seen a decline in COVID-19 cases.

Gov. Brian Kemp has resisted issuing a statewide mask mandate for Georgia and said local districts can make their own decisions about requiring face coverings for schools. The Cherokee County school board could make masks part of the student dress code. However, board member Clark Menard said that could be hard to enforce.

“Unless we have some real severe rules in place related to this and we assume every administrator is following those rules, a mask mandate is going to be nothing more than making someone feel good,” he said.

A Reopening Compromise?

Parents aren’t the only ones who are uneasy.

Carson Allen is a senior at Creekview High School, one of the schools that had to shut down temporarily. He told the board he’d opted for in-person learning after reading the district’s reopening plan. But after being in school for a few weeks, he said he doesn’t feel safe anymore and wants to switch to remote learning.

“There were 25 cases at my high school, which caused it to close,” he said. “And without desks being wiped down between classes, I just don’t feel comfortable going back to school.”

Some school board members pointed out that the number of new COVID-19 cases in Cherokee County seems to be leveling off. But the county’s infection rate is still more than 300 cases per 100,000 people, which is higher than health experts recommend for reopening schools.

“If there are high numbers or increasing numbers of infections in school feeder communities, it stands to reason that students and staff may be infected and come to school with that infection,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an associate professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. “So the easiest scenario for reopening is one in which the level of illness and surrounding community is low, or stable and declining.”

The district plans to reopen Etowah, Creekview and Woodstock high schools on Aug. 31. District officials could reach a compromise by then.

Cherokee County Superintendent Brian Hightower said he’ll consider reopening the three high schools under a hybrid model, where students alternate between days at home and days at school.

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