Masks will be optional when Hall County Schools starts class Aug. 6. That is part of the health guidelines the school system announced Friday afternoon ahead of the 2021-22 school year.
According to the guidelines, all schools in the district will:
Be mask optional.
Continue to implement and encourage simple but effective mitigation strategies: handwashing, covering coughs and sneezes, wiping down high touch surfaces, etc.
Continue to contact trace and notify close contacts.
Publicly post and share a COVID-19 weekly report that is also provided to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Monitor local conditions daily, making informed decisions for all involved.
In a live webinar July 22 involving Longstreet Clinic, the Department of Public Health, Northeast Georgia Health System and local school leaders, Hall County’s Health Services Coordinator Andrea Williamson-English said masks would be encouraged.
The Centers for Disease Control, in K-12 school guidelines published July 9, said masks should be worn by “by all individuals (age 2 and older) who are not fully vaccinated.” Those guidelines also recommend social distancing of 3 feet and state that vaccination “is currently the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic.
While COVID-19 vaccines are available to those 12 and older, they are not yet available to younger children.
Dr. Zachary Taylor, District 2 director of public health, noted in that same webinar that there has been a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in children.
“We’ve seen about a 44% increase in the cases among children ages 5 to 17 years of age this week versus last week,” he said. “And we’re seeing increases in this younger population, which is the population we haven’t yet vaccinated.” There is concern the variant may lead to more severe disease, but the medical community is still learning about the latest mutation of this coronavirus.
“What we’re observing with the delta variant is that it is affecting the younger healthy people and also children more,” Dr. Supriya Mannepalli said during the webinar. “And this has been observed in India where we believe it started, in other countries and in some of the states now that we’re seeing the clusters, so that is very concerning.”
The more easily transmitted delta variant has likely led to an overall increase in the positivity rate in Hall County, up to 6.7% Friday, according to DPH data. The rate had dropped below 2% this summer after soaring over 20% at the beginning of the year, previous to most vaccination efforts.
Quarantine guidelines for those exposed to COVID-19 are unclear and inconsistent, according to the school system’s update. It’s possible there will be different quarantine procedures for students who have been vaccinated and those who have not. However, COVID-19 vaccination is not formally tracked as other immunizations are in the Georgia Registry of Immunizations Transactions and Services. The district has said it will not require vaccinations or track vaccination status.
“The HCSD will continue to study this situation and make a firm decision prior to the first day of school,” the school system said about its quarantine protocols.
Social media posts by the school system on the topic of COVID-19 have sparked vigorous public comments including some confusion on the guidelines as well as worry about how vaccination status may affect children.