Atlanta Public Schools hopes to relax mask rules after winter break

Atlanta Public Schools on Monday announced changes to its mask guidance. CURTIS COMPTON / AJC FILE PHOTO

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Atlanta Public Schools on Monday announced changes to its mask guidance. CURTIS COMPTON / AJC FILE PHOTO

Atlanta students may be allowed to remove their masks in early February, if COVID-19 cases are low enough to meet the district’s newly announced criteria for lifting its long-running mask mandate.

Masks would become optional in Atlanta Public Schools’ facilities come Feb. 1, so long as community transmission in Fulton and DeKalb counties is at “moderate” or “low” levels for two straight weeks. Though the new rules won’t go into effect for nearly two months, district officials unveiled the anticipated change at a Monday board meeting.

The district also plans to keep an eye on the impact of the new omicron coronavirus variant.

“I’d like to focus on the word ‘tentative’ because as we’ve known for the past two years with COVID-19, this virus is incredibly unpredictable and at any moment it could change our guidance and decisions,” said Juliana Prieto, the district’s recently hired epidemiologist.

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Students will continue to wear masks while on buses because of federal requirements.

The move marks the first time APS has outlined what public health conditions must be met in order to lift the mask mandate. Students have been required to wear masks in schools since buildings began to reopen in January.

Other metro Atlanta districts recently shifted their mask rules. Fulton County Schools announced its mandate is ending now that young children can get vaccinated. Gwinnett County Public Schools said starting in January it will relax mask rules based on local transmission levels.

APS officials said they wanted to wait until after the holidays, when families gather and the virus may spread, before making any changes. “What we saw last year, we did have a surge after the winter break,” said Katika Lovett, assistant superintendent of student services. “So we really want to monitor the information.”

The district has recorded more than 2,500 coronavirus cases among students and staff since school began in August, according to data posted to its website. For the week ending Dec. 3, APS documented 73 cases. The district’s highest count — 466 — was recorded the week ending Aug. 27.

The updated APS mask rules will be based on community transmission levels released weekly for each county by the Georgia Department of Public Health. The health agency determines that level based on the number of new cases and the percent of positive tests over the past seven days.

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The “moderate” level — the district’s threshold for going mask-optional — requires the number of new cases to be below 50 per 100,000 residents.

As of Monday, the community transmission level in Fulton County is listed as “substantial,” with 56 new cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period. DeKalb County is at the “moderate” level, with 48 cases per 100,000 residents.

Both Fulton and DeKalb counties would need to be at least at the moderate level for two consecutive weeks for masks to be removed in Atlanta schools.

The district said it plans to notify families on Jan. 28 if the levels are low enough to lift the mask rules on Feb. 1.

As of Monday, APS has loosened mask rules in a few specific instances. The changes allows theater and chorus students to remove masks while performing. Student athletes can take off masks “while in active play,” such as during a basketball game.