BLAIRSVILLE, Ga – Union County Schools (UCS) instituted a mask mandate at the beginning of the year to slow the spread of COVID-19. Now some are wondering if it’s time to remove the measure.
After Christmas, UCS experienced a dangerous spike in cases that almost resulted in the school closing, and after starting the mask mandate, numbers came down. Previously, the school just recommended face coverings for students.
Every time UCS went on break, they saw a spike in COVID-19 cases upon returning. At the meeting in January, board member Julia Barnett discussed how schools are a controlled environment, and it’s easier to contract trace when children are in school. The contained environment limits exposure to unknown elements and potential virus carriers.
However, some parents want to end the mandate, even starting a Facebook group on the issue. Superintendent John Hill referred to those criticizing him on social media as his “fan club.” He made it clear he’s there to take care of the students and staff at UCS.
The majority of UCS leadership supported continuing the mandate because no one can predict the future. The school must consider its immunocompromised faculty and students.
“It’s obvious what we’ve done is working,” High School Principal C.T. Hussion stated. “I know people don’t like to wear them. I don’t…but it works.”
Elementary School Principal Jerry Bavero spoke about watching his staff become sick with the virus.
“One I was really, really concerned about and ended up in the hospital down in Atlanta and thankfully came back still hasn’t made it back full time,” Bavero explained. “If what we all have to deal with for the next 60 odd days is [wearing a mask], I think we’ll all be better for it.”
Woody Gap Principal Carol Knight voiced the immunocompromised faculty’s feelings who feel more comfortable working with a face covering requirement in place. A mask mandate affords those with preexisting conditions increased protection against COVID-19.
According to the data, UCS possessed a relatively flat curve compared to Pioneer RESA and state data; it’s faring better than other school districts. Assistant Superintendent Dr. David Murphy thought Union County was the only school system in Pioneer RESA with a mandate.
“Us compared to other school districts, we’ve made it further than anyone had expected and to see how successful we have been at this point, with no more information that’s out there. I wouldn’t want to change anything now,” Board member Keith Potts commented.
Board member Jana Akins wanted to know how many kids were out of school because of the face covering requirement. Hill explained that they didn’t know. In January, they allowed students to participate in online and in person learning without having to choose. A child could be in person one day and online the next, depending on preference.
Now that the COVID-19 cases are under control, UCS’s returning to an in person or online only policy at the beginning of the next nine weeks. Parents must decide by Friday, February 19 at 7 p.m. They can find the form on the school’s website.
A Different Perspective
One board member played “devil’s advocate” concerning the mandate, Chair Tony Hunter, who views the science as incomplete, and they’re “stumbling through as best [they can].”
He was adamant that immunocompromised teachers have his full support in asking students and others to wear masks in their presence.
Hunter’s hesitant to recommend a mandate with so many unknowns.
“I don’t like being told what I can or can’t do in the land of the free and home of the brave,” Hunter commented.
When discussing why he chooses to wear a mask in public, he explained, “I would hate to know I have a hand in the demise of anyone.”
Hunter presented the idea of allowing teachers to decide if they wanted students to wear a mask during classes or not. He added that giving children a choice provides UCS with a chance to teach them compassion.
A bus driver stated the mask issue appeared to come from the parents, not the children. In his experience, the students didn’t complain about wearing a mask and cared about protecting others. He once explained to a little girl why she needed to wear one, and now she wears it every day.
Barnett spoke out, “I wish what Tony [Hunter] was saying could work, but I think it’s very confusing for students.”
Assistant Superintendent Paula Davenport offered that the face covering mandate helps to prepare students for the workplace. Most businesses require employees to wear a mask, and if the school doesn’t, it presents a possible “double standard.”
Everyone agreed upon the difficulty of the issue. Hunter stated, “let’s keep things as is,” but “to mandate things takes freedom away from an American citizen.”
He also asked everyone to call their state representative and inquire about moving teachers and faculty to the frontline worker list. Currently, teachers don’t qualify for Phase 1A+ vaccine distribution. A facility in Elberton lost its vaccine eligibility for providing a teacher with a vaccine. Teachers will be included in the next phase.
At the primary school, the students have mask breaks. School leadership and the board are considering how to incorporate mask-free time at all schools.
Board member Patrick White wanted teachers to check on children with glasses and make sure they can accomplish their work.
At the end of the discussion, Superintendent Hill asked the principals to go back to their teachers and discuss face coverings before making a decision.
BLAIRSVILLE, Ga – Given the sharp increase in COVID-19 cases, Union County Board of Education moved to heighten virus precautions in the classroom with a mask mandate.
Students returned to class today, January 5, from winter break. Previously, the school encouraged masks but didn’t require face coverings for students. Now all students and teachers must wear a mask except for eating or drinking. Children with medical excuses will receive appropriate accommodations, such as a face shield.
Students exposed to COVID-19 must quarantine for 14 days, and those not following the COVID-19 protocols will be sent home. The school enhanced social distancing and meal mitigations when possible.
Additionally, the nine-week requirement for online learning was suspended until case numbers go back down. If a parent or guardian doesn’t feel comfortable sending their child to school, they can participate in online learning until a parent deems it safe. Parents and guardians against the mask policy were asked to keep their child at home until the old policies are reinstated.
The board decided to cancel athletic events for the week of January 4 to 9. Practices will still take place. Each week the athletic department will decide the game schedule and cancellations. Once games resume, attendance will be limited with a mask requirement in place for fans. The school’s looking into livestreaming events.
Board members agreed that face-to-face instruction must continue until it’s no longer feasible for the system. The current UCS update placed 30 staff in quarantine or positive for COVID-19. If the situation doesn’t improve, the district could move to online-only learning.
Newest board member and Union General Hospital Chief Nursing Officer stated that she views schools as a controlled environment. By keeping children in schools, it’s easier to manage their environments and contact trace.
Several schools districts in the Pioneer RESA opted to go online only for the foreseeable future, including Rabun, Banks, Gainesville, Hall Hart, Lumpkin, Madison, and White. Pickens County announced its decision to close for another week yesterday.
Union County discussed canceling games with schools that were online only but allowing athletic activities, citing that if the district is too sick to attend in-person classes, then should they be traveling to play sports.
The Whitfield commissioners saw red as residents showed up to let them know they opposed a mask mandate. A wave of Whitfield County residents turned out, most wearing red shirts, to tell the county board of commissioners they
opposed a mask mandate on Monday. Although, they were told at the beginning of the meeting, by Chairman Lynn Laughter, they would not be able to comment or question Zachary Taylor, District Health Director for the Georgia Department of Public Health for the North Georgia Region. Those in attendance were also told the board of commissioners would discuss the information. No vote was on the agenda as Monday’s meeting was a work session.
He stated there are currently 3,861 cases in Gordon and Whitfield and 47 deaths.
“The rate of cases has slowed down, but we are still getting new cases every day. Our strategy now is to continue to slow the rate of cases and flatten the curve to buy us time for treatments and to find a vaccine that works,” Taylor said.
Taylor said he wanted to clear up misinformation regarding the effectiveness of masks. “There is plenty of evidence that wearing them stops the transmission.”
When questioned about where to find these studies, Taylor said he couldn’t recall where the study was, but that 172 studies were compared and analyzed that concluded masks are effective, but he could not answer when or where it was published.
When Lindsey Koetje asked if it were a recent study that was retracted, he said “no.”
When Laughter called out the people who were asking, one responded by saying “You said he was going to be presenting facts.”
“These are the facts, even if you don’t like them,” said Laughter.
He went on to say that masks do not impose breathing impairments on healthy people. “If it did, health care workers would be dropping like flies.”
Greg Jones, commissioner, told the board he felt the public should be heard. “We listened to (Zachary Taylor), we should listen to the public.”
GORDON CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL CLOSED DUE TO COVID-19, READ THE STORY HERE.
Laughter said the work agenda was long and they would run over, cutting into a different meeting that would start at six. The work session began at five o’clock. “I don’t mind scheduling another meeting to get public input,” she said.
While the crowd murmured in agreement to be heard, Jones told Laughter that they’d gone over in meetings before.
Jones said he would not support a mask mandate. “I didn’t come here to takes away individual rights. I will not support a mask mandate.”
Roger Crossen, commissioner, agreed. “I took an oath when I enlisted and I’ve taken an oath when I was sworn in as a commissioner, to uphold the Constitution. I won’t take away your rights.” Crossen went on to say “If you see someone out there not wearing a mask and you call the police on them, they have better things to do. Now, if a business wants to require a mask, then that’s between you and them if you want to do business with them.”
Their sentiments were echoed by commissioners Barry Robbins and Harold Booker, who attended via phone conferencing.
Laughter asked those in attendance, 50 were allowed in the work session, who was opposed to a mask mandate. About 48 hands went up. When asked who supported a mask mandate, three, including Laughter’s hand raised.
Laughter said she wanted to express her views and asked that she not be booed. The crowd remained quiet as she spoke. “To me, it’s such a simple thing. Do unto others as you want done unto you.” Laughter went on to say she’d not seen her 92-year-old mother in five months because the facility where she lives won’t allow visitors. She also cautioned those in attendance that what Whitfield County decided only applied to unincorporated areas in the county. Dalton, Varnell and Cohutta would make decisions regarding a mandate.
“All the red shirts are here for a show of unity and to thank our commissioners for standing up for our freedom,” said Lindsey Koetje, who rallied the residents and encouraged them to wear red shirts. When asked if the color stood for the Republican party, Koetje said no, that she selected a random color but since Dalton school colors were red and Georgia Bulldogs were red, she felt most people would have red in their closet.
Koetje told a group of about a group in the lobby that she appreciated them coming out. “I made sure they looked outside and saw how many people were out there wearing red. It put a smile on their faces. Showing up made a difference.”
She said after the meeting that it was simply a matter of personal choice. “It’s not right to make anyone breathe in their own bodily waste. It should be a choice.”
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