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‘50-50’: Gainesville City Schools weighs mask options ahead of 2021-22 school year
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Gainesville Middle School students wear masks while walking to their next class Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. - photo by Scott Rogers

Superintendent Jeremy Williams said at a board meeting Monday, Aug. 2 that Gainesville City Schools could still decide to reverse its mask guidelines just 10 days before the start of school, reiterating that the district’s COVID-19 guidelines will remain flexible as new data emerges. Currently, the district will not require masks. 

Williams said in a phone interview that the mask policy is still “50-50” with respect to requiring them. 

At the meeting, he emphasized the utmost importance of keeping children at home if they display any relevant symptoms. 

“When it comes down to it, I think what saved us a lot last year was the fact that when there was a question about a child being ill, parents were cautious and got the child home,” he said. “We cannot stress that enough, that if there's some type of symptom, it's better to keep the kid home that day.” 

Tim Menzel, a parent whose son is a student in the district, voiced his concerns about the district’s current mask policy, saying the policy “needs to be revisited.” 

“If our school district has an obligation to provide a safe education to our students — or at least to do everything that we can, we can’t protect them against everything that can happen — but if we have an obligation to do everything we can, then the policy, as I understand it, needs to be revisited so that we can provide that protection for our children and our community, which could be facing some significant spread in the next couple of months,” he said.

“It concerns me as a parent,” he said. “It’s putting (my son) at risk and my family at risk to put him into the school system.” He added that while virtual options exist, they are “not really equitable because not everyone can afford to have a parent stay home with a child.” 

Williams has noted that the district saw very few cases in January when area case numbers were much higher. Masks were required then, however, and it is unclear how an absence of masks may impact school transmission, especially in the face of the ultra-contagious delta variant, which the Centers for Disease Control has likened to chickenpox in its infectiousness. 

The district will release a video on Tuesday on its website in which the “goal is to show how the large majority of what we did last year remains the same,” Williams said via text. The video “touches on a few of the changes from last year such as encouraged masks (as opposed to required), quarantine for vaccinated individuals and more usage of cafeteria, playgrounds, field trips, etc.,” he said. 

Williams said during the meeting that employees will be required to wear masks at open houses. 

The district will hold its annual convocation ceremony, called the Big Red Rally, on Thursday at 1:30 p.m. at City Park. The district held the ceremony virtually last year, and in prior years, it had been held in the Gainesville High School gym. “We've encouraged our employees to bring their blankets, their lawn chairs, just so that we can kind of have the time together, physically distancing there on the field,” Williams said. 

The Hall County School district held its convocation at Free Chapel on Monday, Aug. 2. The ceremony had around 2,500 attendees, Superintendent Schofield estimated, the vast majority of whom were maskless. 

The board also unanimously approved a new three-year contract for Williams as superintendent of Gainesville City Schools, beginning July 1 and ending June 30, 2024. He will be paid an annual salary of $225,000 with the potential for a 2% increase each year “if his performance for the previous year is satisfactory.” He has been the superintendent for four years.