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

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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.

Healthcare science wing dedicated to Avis Shaw

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avis shaw

BLAIRSVILLE, Ga – Union County Schools dedicated the healthcare science wing to former nurse and school staple Avis Shaw.

“In years gone by there were not as many opportunities to go to doctors and specialists and Mrs. Shaw was the first line,” Dr. Paula Davenport stated. “There are a lot of people who care about other people, but it takes a special person to care not only about that person, but their wellbeing.”

New board member Julia Barnett called Shaw one of her “heroes” and commented how the retired nurse could relate to everyone. A non-judgmental, caring, and smart individual who wanted to teach children how to care for themselves.

L to R: Sandra Hatfield, Avis Shaw, Julia Barnett.

L to R: Sandra Hatfield, Avis Shaw, Julia Barnett. Photo courtesy of UCS

Shaw worked for the health department for 30 years until retiring, but then went on to work for the nursing home for 11 years. Union County Nursing Home staff refer to Shaw as “Florence Nightingale.”

“I am humbled,” Shaw said. “Nursing has been my life. I’ve loved every minute of it. I think I’ve worked 51 years. I could have worked longer, but I probably wasn’t able to walk.”

She went on to pay tribute to teachers and the impact they’ve had on her life including her principal. He pointed her on the path to achieving her nursing dream. He helped her into Georgia Baptist College of Nursing at Mercer University where students could work their way through the program.

“Out of all the teachers I had, I only had one that was bad. All the rest of them made up for that,” Shaw recalled. “It’s been a wonderful life, and I have enjoyed it. It has been a blessing.”

Shaw and her family moved to Blairsville after eliminating Alaska as their other option. She worked at the hospital for $400 a month for 11 years and learned a lot while she was there.

The maintenance, technology, and special education department received special recognition for all of their efforts.

Maintenance handles a range of projects every day and often, no one has any idea about their responsibilities or accomplishments from food delivery to fixing a roof.

Image of the Avis Shaw Healthcare Science wing courtesy of UCS.

The special education department is a model district for the state with several families choosing Union County because of the department.

The technology department made online learning for Union County possible by thinking ahead and planning for the pandemic. They had every child a Chromebook within 24 hours and prepared wi-fi hotspots.

“These folks are very much the unsung heroes of why we’re successful,” Superintendent John Hill added.

Tony Hunter will continue being the board chair for 2021, and Patrick White will continue as the vice-chair for another year.

 

UCS issues temporary mask mandate, suspends games for one week

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mask mandate

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 data following the black vertical line depicts the recent rise in quarantines and confirmed COVID-19 cases in the school. The orange dotted line = student quarantines. The red line = student positives. The black dotted line = staff quarantine. The black line = staff positives.

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.

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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