With the start of school only days away, both Gainesville and Hall County officials said their communities are split about whether to require masks.
Officials from each district have cited the mental health of students as a reason for not requiring masks, adding that they will remain flexible and continue to follow the data. Hall starts Friday, Aug. 6, and Gainesville has a staggered start with some starting Aug. 11 and others Aug. 13.
Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield said while the surge in COVID-19 cases is certainly a cause for concern, the “costs outweigh the benefits” with respect to requiring masks.
“It’s not as simple as we’ll put masks on them and send them to school,” he said. “Imagine being a 5-year-old student who's never even seen their teacher’s face who is trying to learn phonetic awareness behind the mask. We know that interactions have slowed down, we know that in terms of the strength of relationships, they've slowed down. And we know that perhaps as much as 80 to 85% of communication is nonverbal. And when you lose most of that by wearing a mask, it's again, it's just not as simple as ‘put one on or don’t.’”
For some parents, however, the issue is rather simple.
“I’d rather wear it and not need it than need it and not wear it,” said Shirley Lipscomb, who has a son in seventh grade. “Any time you can better guarantee the safety of students, that’s what you should do.”
Craig Herrington, board chair for Hall County Schools, offered similar reasoning to Schofield.
“To have the children to be able to see their teachers and their teachers to see the children, I think that has a great deal of benefit, especially at the start of the school year.”
Sabrina Cantrell, the parent of seventh and 11th graders, said she is “OK with (masks being optional),” and worries that masks make socializing especially “awkward” for children, which may hinder their development.
Returning to a more normal school environment, Schofield said, is vital to the mental and emotional well-being of students who have suffered in schools that “don’t feel much like schools anymore.”
“Some of the anxiety in the mental health is certainly caused by this unreal situation where, because of mitigation efforts and masking and social distancing, we've almost turned our schools over the past 18 months into mini penal colonies.”
Health experts recognize the importance of opening schools as well as the heavy impact of the pandemic on children’s mental health, but some argue masks should still be required to prevent future lockdowns and yet more suffering.
“Schools should be open,” said Dr. Saima Hussian, a pediatrician at Longstreet Clinic. “It's important for their mental health and just as important for their learning.
“I think that it's also extremely important with schools being open that we try to follow the mitigating strategies that worked last year,” she said. “And those mitigating strategies included masking at schools.”
On July 27, the Centers for Disease Control updated its guidelines to recommend that all individuals — even if they’ve been vaccinated — wear masks indoors in areas with high transmission, such as Hall County.
Jeremy Williams, superintendent for Gainesville City Schools, said while the district's current guidelines do not require masks, the policy is “50-50” and subject to change.
“We get a chance to kind of just watch it for the next week before we make a final decision,” he said. “The overwhelming and resounding feedback we're getting from parents right now is, ‘Do whatever you need to do to make sure we don't go virtual.’ And so if that means we need to do a mask in a week, then we'll do a mask.”
Some parents are undecided but flexible.
“I’m kind of on the fence,” said Kelly Howard, who has a sixth grader in the Hall system. She said she doesn’t have any qualms with the current mask-optional policy but would follow a mandate if it meant not going virtual.
But Gilberto Contreras, who has two children in the Hall system, said he is “worried a lot” about his children’s health.
“Masks should be required so the virus won’t spread more and so the pandemic will be over as soon as possible,” he said through translation by his oldest daughter, a high school student.
When asked why his district has not decided to follow the CDC’s most recent guidelines, Williams likewise noted mental health and said the district will weigh such concerns against the recommendations of the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics, both of which recommend masking.
“At some point we do have to balance out the recommendations that are there versus the mental health of our kids and families,” Williams said.
Coronavirus cases are surging all across Georgia, and children have not been spared. In mid-July, the Department of Public Health recorded 65 cases among children. On Aug. 2, the department recorded more than 350.
Hussain urged parents to get vaccinated if they want to protect their children. She said children “don't tend to have severe illness” but many parents are nonetheless concerned.
“I really don’t mind if they make (them) wear a mask,” said Tony Rodriguez, a father with two children in the Hall system. “I’d rather them require it.”
“This virus is no joke,” he said.