An education professor and two mothers of Bulloch County Schools students spoke to the Board of Education Thursday urging that students and employees be required to wear face masks as a COVID-19 preventative measure.
Meanwhile, a Change.org petition launched that day seeking the mask mandate has now accumulated more than 550 online signatures. But Superintendent of Schools Charles Wilson defended Bulloch County’s existing practice of strongly encouraging but not requiring masks. He drew on a comparison with two other, similar-size Georgia School systems that do have mask mandates
Erin McFerrin, assistant director of residential learning at Georgia Southern University, said that as a fellow administrator she understands that difficult decisions have to be made, that consensus is hard to achieve and that there can always be pushback.
“But as a parent and a community member I believe it is irresponsible, dangerous and selfish on this administration’s part to not move forward with a mask mandate,” she told Wilson and the board. “It is unconscionable that we as a community let politics, personal comfort and opinions override scientific fact and let that cause further damage to our own community.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that everyone over 2 years old should wear a mask while in the presence of others, McFerrin noted. A webpage that carries the statement, “Children 2 years of age and older should wear a mask,” at www.cdc.gov has remained unchanged since Sept. 17.
“We have other communities surrounding us that are wearing masks,” she said. “Why are we not doing that? Why is my daughter going to school wearing a mask and coming out not wearing a mask?”
McFerrin noted that her child had been quarantined twice, a total of two weeks, during the current semester. That, she observed, amounted to being away from school 40% of the semester thus far.
After McFerrin launched the petition at midday Thursday, more than 400 people had signed on by the 6:30 p.m. meeting.
Meca Williams-Johnson, Ph.D., a Georgia Southern education professor who chairs the Bulloch County NAACP’s education committee, spoke briefly about face masks, as well as concerns about testing and efforts to help students catch up.
Requiring masks “would just simply help decrease the number of students, staff and faculty out on quarantines,” she said to the board. “Other counties, like Bryan County, our neighboring county, has had a mask mandate since August for students. … “It has not been clearly apparent how masks are different from any other dress code item.”
The final speaker during Thursday’s public participation time was Suzanne Hallman, also a Georgia Southern employee, but with its Business Innovation Group.
She and her husband have two children attending Julia P. Bryant Elementary School face-to-face this semester. They were virtually schooled first semester, but their parents found that the Schools PLP interactive learning platform failed to meet their needs and paid a retired teacher to help keep them on track, she explained.
Since returning, the Hallman children so far have not been quarantined.
Hallman said she is disappointed that some Georgia Southern students who go to Bulloch County Schools as teachers-in-training do not wear masks. But they are told to follow the local school system’s guidelines, she said.
“So although we mandate masks on (the GS) campus to keep our teachers and our staff safe, these student teachers come into the classroom and they’re not wearing masks,” Hallman said.
She had compiled a comparison of recent coronavirus case and quarantine counts from more than a dozen Georgia school systems. Wearing a cap with the “Do Right” motto, Hallman urged the school system leaders, “Let’s do what’s right.”
Wilson, responding later in the meeting, based some of his comments on a comparison of the cumulative numbers from three of those systems: the Bulloch County Schools, with 10,940 students and 1,614 employees; the Lowndes County Schools, with 10,553 students and 1,390 employees, and the Clarke County School District, with 13,964 students and 2,351 employees.
Athens-Clarke County is home to the University of Georgia, and Lowndes County hosts Valdosta State University. Their school systems have mandated, since classes started last fall, that students and employees wear masks.
From the start of the school year through Feb. 5, the Lowndes County Schools reported 417 COVID-19 cases, while the Clarke County School District reported 561 cases, and the Bulloch County Schools, with no mask mandate, saw 522 cases, according to data Wilson gleaned from reports on their websites.
He noted that about 4% of BCS students and employees have tested positive.
“That is similar to districts similar to us,” Wilson said.
The actual infection rates indicated by the numbers cited above are 4.2% for the Bulloch County, 3.5% for the Lowndes County and 3.4% for the Clarke County school systems.
Since the Feb. 5 date of that comparison, Bulloch County Schools’ cumulative case number has grown by 41 cases, to 563, but the weekly new case counts are down from a peak of 79 the week of Jan. 24-30. The schools are closed all this week for winter break.
That the case numbers spike after students return from breaks was another point Wilson emphasized. Spikes occurred here as soon as school started in August, then after fall break, after Thanksgiving, and largest of all, after Christmas break and the start of the new semester in January.
Something Wilson didn’t mention was that the January “spike” lasted the entire month, with 43 new cases the first week, 48 the second week, 58 the third week and 79 the fourth week, before the count dropped to 42 cases the week of Jan. 31-Feb. 6. More than 2,000 previously virtual-option students had returned face-to-face with the start of the semester.
10% in clusters
But he did talk about “clusters,” instances when two or more people who were at school together or in “close contact” develop COVID-19 symptoms or have a confirmed positive test within 14 days of each other. One example is when a person sent to precautionary quarantine because of “close contact” then tests positive.
As of Feb. 5, the Bulloch County Schools had reported 54 clusters, equivalent to 10.3% of the total case count.
“The data reflect that only 10% of the cases that are occurring in our schools are actually coming from within our schools,” Wilson said. “That means that 90% of the cases that we’re seeing of our students and teachers or employees in our schools are actually coming from outside of the schools.”
He noted that the Georgia Department of Public Health does not allow schools to exempt individuals who come into “close contact” from a quarantine for having worn a mask. In fact, after attempting to create such an exemption last fall, the Bulloch County Board of Education received a warning letter from Georgia DPH commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey and rescinded the policy.
“So masks do not prevent or mitigate the issue of students being quarantined,” Wilson said. “That’s just a fact.”
No board action
Some board members suggested that a mask mandate could reduce the number of quarantines by limiting the spread of infection. Others asked how a mandate could be enforced. But a mask mandate was not on the agenda as an action item, and board members did not offer a motion for mandate.
“I want to be clear that I am not disputing any substantiated evidence that mask-wearing can have some impact on the spread of germs,” Wilson said in an email Friday. “It might. … However, that does not warrant jumping to a conclusion that a mask-mandate is warranted or will be effective just because some people have expressed their opinions and referred to preliminary and inconclusive data.”
Before Wilson’s comments Thursday, Assistant Superintendent for Business Services Troy Brown reported on the county school district’s ongoing efforts against COVID-19.
Among other things, the district supplies disposable masks to students and employees who want them when arriving at school or getting on buses. The district has a few more than 100,000 masks currently warehoused after fulfilling schools’ requests for 9,600 masks in the last four weeks and, Brown reported.