Mask or no mask debate erupts during Union board of education meeting

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mask mandate

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.

Superintendent John Hill

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.

Union County’s the yellow line, and it’s significantly lower than the state and Pioneer RESA lines.

“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.”

Board Chair Tony Hunter

Board Chair Tony Hunter

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.

UCS selects construction management firm for CCA building and other projects

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Charles Black Construction construction management firm

BLAIRSVILLE, Ga – In a called online board meeting on January 28, 2020, Union County School (UCS) board chose Charles Black Construction as the construction management team for upcoming projects.

Five firms responded to the construction professional services RFP with proposals. The construction committee presented Charles Black Construction as the recommended firm. Charles Black Construction previously assisted UCS with the field house renovation.

UCS hired Charles Black with four projects in mind: CCA/CTAE building, vocational building renovation, Union County High School Cafeteria expansion, and flooring replacement. The contract lasts two years. Altogether, the projects equal around $7 million, but some numbers could fluctuate because they don’t have the designs yet.
$3.75 million in grant funds will go toward the CCA/CTAE building, and the remainder would come from ESPLOST 5.

A construction management company writes all the subcontracts from site work to the end and assists the architect with the design.

“We can do some construction management processes, and it will actually save money on the design,” Facilities Manager Mike Patton explained. “We can do some value engineering along with the architect. They keep each other in check basically.”

Facilities Director Mike Patton

Facilities Director Mike Patton explained why they chose Charles Black Construction.

Charles Black would operate within a set budget and ensure the architect does too. The firm’s headquartered in Cleveland, Ga. Patton vouched for their experience and expertise in their field.

Check out the company’s portfolio here.

“They are small. They aren’t hardly as large a company as others that have submitted, but we feel like we get a lot more personal service,” Patton commented.

A site manager would always be on location. Charles Black will help UCS find the best materials for the best prices too.

As for costs, Patton added Charles Black came in on the low end of the proposals with a multiple dollar fee – a preconstruction fee, and a 2.95 percent construction fee. The company also offered a lower rate for new construction and the standard rate for renovations.

Another RFP would be necessary for the primary school renovation, but UCS will apply for more state grant money for the project.

Superintendent John Hill announced September as the hopeful groundbreaking date for the CCA building.

UCS chose the architect in November 2020. 

Feature image: courtesy of Charles Black Construction and an example of the firm’s previous work.

2 positive students and 4 staff COVID-19 cases at UCS

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BLAIRSVILLE, Ga – Union County Schools (UCS) released coronavirus, COVID-19 numbers on Friday, August 14. Currently, two students and four staff members have positive cases.

27 students and 17 staff members are currently under quarantine for possible exposure.

Students and faculty return to in-person instruction on August 17, and the students and faculty under quarantine or with positive cases won’t be in attendance. According to school policy, only those who test negative for COVID-19 can attend in-person class.

According to the school’s policy, anyone who tests positive can’t return for “at least 10 days following the onset of COVID-19 symptoms or receiving a positive test result AND be fever-free for at least 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication AND have an improvement in respiratory symptoms.”

Quarantined individuals must stay home for at least 14 days even if symptom-free. If they develop symptoms, the quarantine may be extended from symptoms onset. Also, students with a confirmed diagnosis in the home will be quarantined an additional 14-days from when the family’s quarantine time ends.

If hospitalized or severely immunocompromised from the virus, students must stay home “at least 20 days since symptoms first appeared AND be fever-free for at least 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medications AND have an improvement in respiratory symptoms.”

While quarantining from home, students can participate in the online learning program.

UCS will be providing a weekly COVID-19 update concerning positive cases and possible exposures. These updates aren’t meant to alarm but provide public information.

Face masks are highly recommended for all students and will be available to students and faculty on campus. Students will be required to wear face masks during class changes, school nurse visits, and safety drills.

Each week the school buildings will be deep-cleaned over a three day period.

To review UCS’s reopening plan, follow the link, here.

As for closure, UCS is following Georgia’s Department of Education (GaDOE) District Decision Tree.

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