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Forsyth teen to superintendent: Please show leadership and mandate masks

Students wearing face masks sit at their desks keeping social distance, ahead of a selectivity exam on Tuesday, July 7, 2020 in Sabadell, outside Barcelona, Spain.
Students wearing face masks sit at their desks keeping social distance, ahead of a selectivity exam on Tuesday, July 7, 2020 in Sabadell, outside Barcelona, Spain.

Credit: Emilio Morenatti

Credit: Emilio Morenatti

District encourages students and staff to cover faces but no requirement

A rising senior at a Forsyth high school shared a letter she wrote to Superintendent Jeff Bearden urging him to mandate masks when county schools reopen in a few weeks. The district is urging masks, but says some student and staff cannnot wear masks due to health issues.

The Restart Forsyth plan states:

All students and staff are expected to wear a mask when feasible: buses, classrooms, corridors, etc.

Transportation and Food Service staff are required to wear a mask in the presence of students if they are unable to social distance.

At the school board meeting Thursday, Bearden acknowledged, "Health officials are consistent in their messaging that, when in public, we all should wear masks."

However, Bearden said he opposed a mask mandate after hearing from parents whose children suffer a health condition such as asthma that makes it difficult to wear one. He also heard from school staff for whom a mask posed a health challenge.

“That is why I am opposed to the word ‘required’ when it comes to wearing a mask,” Bearden told the school board. “We will not discipline students or staff for not wearing a mask. We will not have incentives in place for students to wear a mask. But what we will do is we will positively promote why wearing a mask in public is so important. My staff and I will model that expectation.”

Katherine Gates, a rising senior at South Forsyth High School, does not think that policy is sufficient.

Here is her letter:

Dr. Bearden,

My name is Katherine Gates and I am a rising senior at South Forsyth High School. As a rising senior, my world is already clouded with uncertainty regarding college and my future.

However, the current pandemic has greatly exacerbated this uncertainty. I am no longer certain of the viability of a traditional "senior year experience" that I have taken for granted for so long. I am no longer certain of being able to tour colleges to aid me in making that important decision. I am no longer certain that the safety and well-being of myself and my fellow students are being ensured by yourself and the elected officials of the board of education.

Katherine Gates
Katherine Gates

In these deeply uncertain times, students and adults alike are searching desperately for some semblance of decisive leadership. We have not found it in the federal government. We have not found it in the state government. We are now looking to you, our local education official, to provide this leadership.

Please mandate masks for Forsyth County students and teachers. I understand that taking such a strong stance opens you up to a host of controversy and criticism. I understand that it may not be easy.

However, doing the right thing is rarely easy. Please follow the examples that our neighbors Cobb and Gwinnett have set in recent days. Please follow the example the University System of Georgia has set.

It has been well documented by various scientific studies, as well as real world applications, that universal mask use greatly reduces the spread of the novel coronavirus. As a leader, it is your job to heed the advice of scientists and medical professionals, and make the best decision for your students.

I understand the principles of free choice and individual freedoms, but the facts remain that universal mandated mask use will provide your students and teachers with the freedom FROM rapid disease spread as well as the freedom TO feel safe attending school.

As for the people who may not like this decision, they still have the freedom to choose to school from home, without potentially endangering the health of their fellow students. It is my belief and the belief of countless others that mandating masks is the best way to ensure public health and safety, and ensure that school is to remain open throughout the year.

I would also like to remind you, that while there is a plethora of evidence to back up the effectiveness of universal mask use, there is none that indicates that masks are in any way harmful to health. I will be happy to provide some examples, if you ask that of me.

Those who remain personally opposed to mask use are guided by misinformation and fear mongering in their beliefs, and as an educator it is also your job to strike down misinformation and instill students with truth and fact. You have the authority to implement a dress code that bans tank tops or sagging pants. You therefore have the authority to implement a dress code that requires that all students wear a mask.

For the students that do not have the means to obtain a mask, there are ways to provide that to them without dipping into our already scarce budget. You could put masks as an optional item on the school supplies list, to encourage families that have the means to provide some for families that do not. Forsyth County high schools have various service-based organizations that could hold drives or even make masks as part of our community service. Please do your job to mandate masks in school, and we, the community, will pitch in and do our job to uphold this mandate and keep our fellow citizens safe.

We are in an unprecedented crisis, and we need strong decisive leadership from you and creative collaborative solutions from the community to get through this. I am asking you as a student who has been in this wonderful school system for all 12 years of my education to take that first step and provide the leadership we desperately seek. I am asking you to assuage the fears of the incredible teachers in Forsyth County. I am asking you to do what is possible to keep our schools open and our students healthy and happy. I am asking you to make a difficult decision for the betterment of all.

I am also reminding you, that when you do, you will have a sizable portion of the community behind you, relieved to be able to return to school in a safe manner, and grateful that you have made the difficult right decision. Thank you for your time, and I hope you consider my words.

-Katherine Gates

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