Coronavirus, Education

Tug-of-War Over School Mask Mandates Continues, As More Ga. Students Are Required To Wear Them

Cobb parents fought for and against a mask mandate before the August school board meeting.
Cobb parents fought for and against a mask mandate before the August school board meeting.
Credit Martha Dalton / WABE

More than half of all Georgia public school students are now required to wear masks in class, according to the Associated Press. That compares to just a handful of districts that mandated masks before school began in August, the AP says.

The Data Debate

Several metro Atlanta districts dropped their mask mandates over the summer when it seemed the worst of COVID might be over. Then the Delta variant came along. Districts like Atlanta, Gwinnett, Clayton, and DeKalb reinstated mask requirements.

Still, some are holding out. Cobb, Cherokee, and Forsyth all strongly encourage mask-wearing but don’t require it. Cobb Superintendent Chris Ragsdale defended the strategy at a recent school board meeting. During a COVID-19 update, Ragsdale said COVID cases in the district dropped 44% in a three-week period.

“The data clearly indicates a mask mandate doesn’t provide a significant change in the cases,” he said.

Ragsdale also pointed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research from 2020 that concluded student masking had no statistically significant benefit.

However, research from Duke University and the CDC shows masks are effective at slowing the spread of the virus and that areas without school masking policies tend to have more COVID cases.

“Our experts have actually reviewed hundreds of studies looking at how masks work and if they’re effective– and they are effective–at decreasing the spread of COVID and other viruses within schools,” says Dr. Lee Savio Beers, the President of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “They work best if everybody’s wearing them. They’re less effective if only one or two kids are wearing them.”

The CDC and AAP recommend wearing masks in school buildings, regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status.

Beers says even though children are at a lower risk of contracting COVID, schools need to be vigilant when it comes to mitigating the virus.

“We still do have lots of children who are getting very, very ill with COVID, particularly with the Delta variant, which is much more contagious…and we’re seeing thousands of children admitted to hospitals every week with COVID-19,” she says.

Legal Ramifications

Even as COVID cases are steadily declining across the state, the mask issue is making its way to court. Parents in Gwinnett and Fulton counties have sued those districts over their mask mandates. Some parents worry that wearing a mask all day gives children anxiety and interferes with their ability to learn. Ragsdale echoed those concerns.

“There are obvious socio-emotional and educational harms from masking children for this unprecedented duration of time,” he said.

However, parents of special needs children worry about mask-optional policies because some of those children are also medically fragile. The Southern Poverty Law Center and two Atlanta law firms sent a letter to the Cobb County School District, asking officials to issue a mask mandate so that students with special needs could safely attend school in person. The group threatened a federal lawsuit if the district doesn’t comply.

Meanwhile, the City Schools of Decatur is the first in metro Atlanta to require COVID-19 vaccines for staff. Other districts, including Gwinnett and Clayton, have offered teachers a one-time $500 bonus to get vaccinated. Although districts require other vaccines for students to enroll in school, none so far has added the COVID vaccine to that list.

“Vaccine requirements are nothing new,” says Beers. “Schools across the country have them for lots of different things.”

The AAP hasn’t taken a position on whether schools should require the COVID vaccine. But Beers notes those who’ve opted for the vaccine seem to be benefiting.

“Schools where the adolescents and adults have higher vaccination rates are generally safer,” she says.

Decatur is working on a student vaccine requirement but hasn’t mandated the shot for them yet.

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