In a seeming repeat of discussions from the previous school year, the Bulloch County Board of Education heard from about two dozen people Thursday night on both sides of a divide over the school system’s nonexistent mask mandate.
In all, 26 people signed up to speak and were allowed up to three minutes each during “public participation” time. The renewed discussion occurs after the recent Delta variant surge in COVID-19 cases has claimed lives in the community, including among teachers and school support staff. Individuals who spoke for a mask mandate or other changes, such as a pause in face-to-face instruction or easier access to virtual instruction, outnumbered those speaking for the status quo by about two-to-one.
But after more than an hour of this, followed by another hour of discussion among board members, no motions were offered or votes taken. The Bulloch County Schools continue to operate with masks “strongly encouraged” but not required, with building and bus disinfection practices in place and with precautionary quarantines optional for students and employees who come into close contact with COVID-19 cases at school but who do not experience symptoms themselves.
What the CDC says
Meanwhile, whatever other sources local speakers pro and con cited or alluded to, this is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s current summary statement about masks in schools:
“Due to the circulating and highly contagious Delta variant, CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.”
That wording has remained posted in “K-12 Schools Guidance” at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare since an Aug. 4 update.
Erin McFerrin, a parent who also asked the board for a mask requirement back in February, read a statement Thursday from a Bulloch County Schools elementary grades teacher. McFerrin said the teacher wanted to remain anonymous for fear of losing his or her job, and this was the first of several statements presented by students and parents on behalf of anonymous teachers who favor of a mask mandate.
“What is your ‘why’ when many other counties in the state have chosen to take effective and/or aggressive measures for keeping the community and the school population safe, yet you continue not to do that?” the anonymous teacher asked the board and superintendent. “Is your stance just ‘good luck and don’t die?’”
The teacher had been wearing a mask and trying to implement other guidelines “even though most of those are impossible given the current amount of students in our classrooms” and wonders if these can do any good “when one of the most simple ones, mask wearing, is being avoided,” the statement said.
The Rev. Jane A. Page, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro and previously a Georgia Southern University professor of education, reported a visit she had with a local medical professional.
“She shared with me that they have been so overwhelmed with COVID patients – and this Delta variant is affecting much younger folks – and that’s difficult for her to see. Even babies are coming in with difficulty breathing,” Page related. “She said she can make it through the day, but comes home every night and the tears just flow, and it’s hard for her to sleep at night.”
Page compared a mask mandate to the ban on smoking in public buildings and laws requiring that motorcyclists wear helmets and that drivers place young children in car seats. These are limits on liberty people have gotten used to for health and safety reasons, she said.
“I encourage one of you to make a motion for a two-week break for schools and try to plan a reset for this school year which includes mandating the guidelines which will help us better contain this virus, and you know what those guidelines are,” Page said. “I hope and pray that you’ll do the right thing.”
Noel Holley first guided her son Joseph, who is in fourth grade, and then her daughter Addie, who is in third grade, to the lectern. Their statements included that family members became ill with COVID-19 after Joseph was quarantined from a close contact in school in August.
Then Noel Holley read a statement from Dr. Wayne R. Bryan, hospitalist and co-medical director at East Georgia Regional Medical Center. He indicated that he couldn’t attend the meeting because he would be on call at EGRMC.
“Right now, to say we are overwhelmed at the hospital is an understatement,” Bryan wrote.
The hospital staff started the previous day with 67 admitted COVID-19 patients, 19 of whom were on ventilators, he noted. Meanwhile, 25 patients were admitted and holding in the emergency room, which has 26 beds, and 13 of those were critically ill patients. East Georgia Reginal Medical Center’s two 12-bed intensive care units were full. So the staff was struggling to take care of other patients, as well as COVID-19 patients, according to Bryan’s statement.
He said he recently had two COVID-19 patients die in two days, not elderly people but previously healthy people in their 40s and 50s who left behind children and grieving spouses.
“Please know that there is no debate among the physician providers and nurse practitioners in our hospital group regarding the efficacy of masks,” continued the doctor’s statement, which Holley read to the board. “They work to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”
A mask does little to protect the wearer, but it helps slow the spread of the virus to other people, so masks are more effective when everyone wears them, Bryan had written. He also has a child attending a Bulloch County school.
“Right now there seem to be no more than a handful of people wearing masks in the school building and unfortunately this is unlikely to change without a mandate. …,” Bryan said. “We hope the Board of Education has faith in the advice of local providers and will make the right call to help a very stressed and tired hospital.”
But board members also heard from Brandon Eskew.
“I’m not anti-mask, but I’m anti-mask-mandate,” Eskew said. “I feel like this would make work on teachers, and how would it be enforced with our kids? Are you going to give them detention, or what’s going to be the punishment for not wearing masks? At the same time, I see kids wearing masks at school, and I see them at the rec field, Walmart and all over not wearing masks, so I feel like this is rather unfair to the school board. You know, this is a community problem.”
Southeast Bulloch High School teacher Brent Whitaker also urged the board to stick to its position of not requiring masks and keeping the schools open face-to-face. He knows COVID is real, he and his wife have had it, and they have friends who have died from it, he asid.
“But the reality of this is we’re going to be living with this, folks, from here on out, maybe forever,” Whitaker said. “Where do we draw the line? Two masks? Three? Hazmat suit? Eventually we’re going to hit a spot where we can’t come back from it, and I for one am not going to live in fear.”
He said he was leaving the board a study from 10 different countries showing what happened after they instituted mask mandates.
“Now, I’ve heard a lot of people speak for a lot of other people,” Whitaker said. “I speak for an army of silent teachers who are scared to voice their opinion in the halls of the school because it’s not popular. What’s popular right now is running with the fear side of things. … I’m thankful to be in front of our children, and the majority of teachers I’ve talked to, they are also thankful to be back teaching those kids, and those kids are beyond thankful to be back.”
Several nearby school districts do have mask mandates, and some, including the Liberty County and Screven County schools, have had recent, temporary shutdowns of face-to-face school.
Superintendent Charles Wilson said that from what he has seen, Bulloch County has fared no worse in COVID-19 cases per population than nearby counties where the schools have mask mandates. Some of what board members said during their discussion will be reported in a separate story.