COVID-19: Local schools won’t require masks
By Michael Wetzel and Caroline Beck
For the Enquirer
Local public school systems don’t plan to require masks or social distancing for students when classes resume in August, even as the number of new COVID-19 cases in the state trends upward.
State Superintendent Eric Mackey said this past week there will be no push from Alabama’s Department of Education to require students or school personnel to wear masks. He said it will be up to local schools to address mask-wearing and social distancing.
“Local school districts have the authority if they want to do something with requirements, but we are not going to do any guidance from the state level on that,” Mackey said.
Gov. Kay Ivey’s press secretary Gina Maiola confirmed the governor will not push a mask mandate for schools.
“Gov. Ivey believes students need to be in the classroom without any type of mask requirement,” Maiola said. “She continues to encourage all eligible Alabamians to roll up their sleeves and get the vaccine to make COVID-19 a distant memory.”
The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Alabama has risen over the past two weeks, from 205.43 new cases per day June 28 to 559.57 new cases per day Monday, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University.
About 33 percent of Alabamians are fully vaccinated, compared to about 48 percent nationally, according to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC announced this past week that vaccinated teachers and students don’t need to wear masks inside school buildings, a relaxation of its COVID-19 guidelines for schools, The Associated Press reported.
Michael Douglas, Decatur City Schools superintendent, said DCS has no plans to require masks for students this fall.
Hartselle Superintendent Dee Dee Jones said the same but added her district will continue to address the threat of the pandemic.
“We will continue to clean/fog our buildings and continue to place hand sanitizer stations throughout our campuses,” she said.
Morgan County Schools are “going back to 100 percent normal” in regards to masks and social distancing, said district spokesperson Jeremy Childers. “We’ll do whatever the Alabama Department of (Public) Health says. Right now, there’s no mask mandate. Now, by the time school starts, that might change,” he said.
Jon Bret Smith, Lawrence County superintendent, said his district will continue to follow the CDC and Alabama State Department of Education guidelines.
“Lawrence County students and staff won’t be required to wear masks this fall, but we will continue to clean our rooms like we have since the pandemic started,” he said. “As for social distancing, we will try to keep our students separated as much as possible.”
Christy Hubbard, Athens City Schools spokesperson, said the district plans to return to normal operations in August. She said school leaders will follow guidance from local and state government and health officials.
“Masks will be optional for students, faculty, staff and visitors,” she said in an email. “We are ready and committed to providing the best educational opportunities and experience possible to every student every day.”
Limestone County Schools spokesperson Ashley Graves said the district plans for students and staff to begin school normally.
The Alabama Department of Public Health reported Morgan, Limestone and Lawrence counties are on the “very high risk” list. In the past 14 days, Limestone has reported 87 new cases, while Morgan has reported 74 and Lawrence 11.
Thursday, Limestone and Morgan each had 15 new cases, and Lawrence recorded three.
In data released Wednesday, Decatur Morgan Hospital had one confirmed COVID-19 patient and one suspected case. Athens-Limestone Hospital had two patients with the virus.
The CDC is recommending schools should continue to space students — and their desks — 3 feet apart in classrooms, but Mackey said his department won’t be pushing for that either.
“Most desks are already 3 feet apart side to side, but front to back, that’s very difficult to do,” Mackey said. “It would put us back into doing things like hybrid school and A/B scheduling all next year, and we just don’t think that’s the right thing to do.”
The state’s last remaining state of emergency order related to the pandemic ended July 6, and there is no longer any statewide mask mandate in place.
Mackey also said COVID-19 vaccines are not a requirement for students to attend school, and while there won’t be a formal program to bring more vaccines into schools, he is encouraging anyone who can get vaccinated to do so.
“It’s a parent’s decision, but that’s not going to keep us from saying I believe our parents need to go visit their physician and talk to them about it,” Mackey said.