The Gainesville City school system will require masks at all of its schools starting Monday, Aug. 30.
The mandate comes after the district reported an increase in cases “higher than any one week last year,” Superintendent Jeremy Williams said Friday, Aug. 27. The district as of Aug. 27 reported 44 COVID-19 cases, up from 17 the previous week. The previous weekly high was 35.
The district had recently relaxed its quarantine guidelines to keep more students in school. The mask mandate is similarly being implemented in an effort to maintain in-person schooling, the announcement from the system stated.
The decision will be revisited in two weeks.
“What we want to do more than anything is try to keep a face-to-face environment as long as possible,” Williams said. “We don't want to have to go virtual. Our students and our families have communicated that to us. They said, ‘We’ll do anything if we can just keep from going virtual,’ and so for us this is that next logical step.”
The next step would be reverting to the previous quarantine guidelines, Williams said, and the final step would be transitioning to virtual instruction.
Williams said the decision to mandate masks was also influenced by the recent messaging from the Northeast Georgia Health System and the need for stronger community ties in the fight against COVID-19.
“I don’t want to sugarcoat the situation,” said NGHS CEO Carol Burrell in a recent video message. “We are reaching a critical point in this fight. What we ask is that you please do your best to limit the spread of COVID-19. The health of this community depends on it.”
In an internal memo to staff, Burrell wrote that “hospitals are full,” and pleaded with workers to “dig deep” as they pick up the slack of being short staffed and prepared for a wave of infected patients over the weekend.
“Carol Burrell put out the message regarding the challenges at the hospital being full and that they're having right now,” Williams said. “While we've been communicating with them all along, it really doesn't matter if we're contributing to that base or not — we're in this together. And I felt like going back to where we were as a community in December and January, we have to get back to that point. … And this hopefully can get the school system in our case, but also some community partners, on the same page about helping this peak turn the tide.”
He estimates that 65% of employees are fully vaccinated, and more than 60% of students are already consistently masking in schools. He echoed calls from local health experts to get vaccinated and said the district will ramp up its efforts to push out that message.
“Bottom line, if you're not vaccinated you're running a risk,” Williams said. “As of right now that's the only protection — that’s the only way we’re going to protect our kids and our families.”
Williams said the decision was “not difficult.” His team and the school board were “100%” on the same page when they made the decision Friday afternoon, he said, adding that other leaders across the district are grateful for the mandate.
“The feedback that I got from my leadership beyond those that were involved in the decision making — so whether that's my department of directors or my principals — was either the handclap (emoji) on a text message, or it was, ‘Thank you, we're so glad to hear it.’ I think everybody knew it was coming. It was just a matter of when.”