Just weeks after the school year began, the number of COVID-19 cases in the Hall County School District has increased sharply, nearly doubling the previous peak from December, 2020.
As of Aug. 31, there were 379 cases compared to 198 on Dec. 14, 2020.
In a video update on Monday, Aug. 30, Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield said the district has seen “spread like we never saw last year among students, or significant spread amongst faculty members, which threatens our ability to have in person schooling.”
Despite that spread, the district has maintained its mask-optional policy, opting instead for a school-by-school approach, with nine schools temporarily requiring masks and another requiring them for two grade levels.
Schofield cited a May report from the Centers for Disease Control, which found that even though coronavirus cases appeared lower in schools that mandated masks for students, the difference was “not statistically significant compared with schools where mask use was optional.”
“It reinforced what our own personal experience, and watching neighbors across the state, has told us for the last year and a half,” Schofield said. “People have sent some extremely critical emails since (the update), ‘Yeah, but we're dealing with the delta variant.’ And once again, if we start looking at other mid-size districts that have intense mitigation processes, whether it's Bibb County, whether it's Clarke County, and then you throw in Hall County … they're not faring any better than we are. And so yes, delta is more contagious. We all have more cases. But once again, people would struggle to make a case for seeing huge differences for children when it comes to masking.”
The Gainesville school system issued a temporary mask mandate last week for all of its schools after setting a record for weekly coronavirus infections. That mandate came on the heels of a public plea from the CEO of the Northeast Georgia Health System, Carol Burrell, who declared that “hospitals are full” and asked community members to do their part in stemming the wave of infections.
The CDC officially recommends universal masking in areas with high transmission, such as Hall County, and did so even in the May report, advising “universal and correct use of masks” as a “relatively low-cost and easily implemented strategy.”
The report also noted that “the incidence of COVID-19 was 37% lower in schools that required mask use among teachers and staff members.”
When asked in an interview why the district has not mandated staff masking, Schofield said, “We certainly don't see ourselves as keepers of adult’s decisions. … I don't see myself as any 40-year-old’s father and telling them that you wear a mask because you have not been vaccinated ... tremendous difference between an 8-year-old and a 40-year-old that has some free will and some opportunity to make some decisions on their own.”
Schofield said he has a “tremendous compassion for what our health care workers are going through,” but added, “I think what people try to connect the dot to is that, ‘Oh, if schools would wear a mask, we wouldn't have a challenge.’ And there's just no data out there yet that suggests schools are a vector of spread. … So once again, tremendous compassion for our health care workers. But we're not seeing the numbers on the ground that us having school is leading to more people in the hospital system.”
“Many of our team members are opting to wear masks,” district spokesman Stan Lewis said in an email. “The district does recommend that staff wear masks when social distancing is not possible; however, masks are still optional. Additionally, all of our teachers have had an opportunity to be vaccinated.” Lewis said it would be difficult to provide an estimate for how many staff are choosing to mask.
Schofield has strongly recommended vaccination for all school staff. Lewis estimates that 50% of staff are fully vaccinated, though employees are not required to share their vaccination status.
The district will close its schools on Sept. 20 for a mental health/voluntary vaccination day. The decision was twofold, Schofield said.
“No. 1 is, we're four weeks into the school year and people are already exhausted,” and the day off will “give our people an opportunity to catch their breath,” he said. “The second issue was without a doubt, we continue to believe that vaccinations are the one lever we have that can make significant long-term difference, and we want to just continue to give people an opportunity to consider that.”
At its last meeting, the board of education rejected Schofield’s proposal to provide a $400 payment to any employee who proved they were fully vaccinated before Oct. 15.
Gov. Brian Kemp announced Monday that State Health Benefit Plan members, which includes school employees, will be eligible for a vaccine incentive in the form of a $150 Visa gift card or $480 in health care credits.