COVID risk triggers staff mask requirement in Gwinnett schools

A group demonstrated Thursday, July 21, 2022, against a mask requirement for employees of Gwinnett County Public Schools. Gwinnett is at high risk for community transmission of COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That triggered the district mask requirement. (Josh Reyes / Josh.Reyes@ajc.com)

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A group demonstrated Thursday, July 21, 2022, against a mask requirement for employees of Gwinnett County Public Schools. Gwinnett is at high risk for community transmission of COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That triggered the district mask requirement. (Josh Reyes / Josh.Reyes@ajc.com)

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Georgia’s largest school district is requiring its employees to wear masks in district buildings amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, a move being criticized by some teachers and others.

A group of about 40 demonstrators gathered at Gwinnett County’s school board meeting late Thursday to demand they repeal the requirement and make masks optional. Three teachers addressed the board with the same request.

“I love teaching, and I pride myself on making great relationships with students and parents. And I absolutely love teaching middle school math,” said Whitney Nalepa during the board meeting. “But wearing the mask changes my love for this job. Wearing the mask prevents me from truly connecting with all my students.”

Gwinnett’s current mask policy was adopted in February after the CDC changed its guidance. Gwinnett informed employees last week about the change.

The requirement does not apply to students or visitors to schools, but the district will “strongly encourage” them to wear masks. Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill in March that allows parents to opt their children out of school mask mandates.

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The district recently changed its policy that previously stated once in effect, a mask requirement will remain until the transmission risk drops to medium or low for two weeks.

“We’ll look at the data every week, and if it goes back into moderate or low transmission, we’ll be back to strongly recommending (masks),” Deputy Superintendent Nakia Towns said at the meeting.

Multiple teachers noted that the district implemented a new literacy program that they will struggle to teach if they’re wearing a mask. “As educators, we’ve been looking forward to launching this new program. Now our hands are tied and our mouths are covered,” Bri Shelton said.

Outside, people carried signs with phrases like “make masks optional” and “masks impede learning.” One child held a sign that said, “I want to see my teacher’s face.” They shared a survey by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators that found 76% of 3,100 Gwinnett school employees in the survey said they opposed a mask requirement.

Board Vice Chair Steve Knudsen, who pushed back against the previous mask mandate, said he wondered about the emotional and mental effects a requirement will have on teachers. He also raised questions about the effectiveness of masks.

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Dr. Audrey Arona, director of the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale health departments, briefed the Gwinnett County school board about recent COVID-19 trends on Thursday, July 21, 2022. The district enacted a temporary mask requirement for staff based on CDC guidelines. After months of mostly not wearing masks, staff at the meeting and most of the board resumed wearing a mask.

Credit: Screenshot / Gwinnett County Public Schools

Dr. Audrey Arona, director of the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale health departments, briefed the Gwinnett County school board about recent COVID-19 trends on Thursday, July 21, 2022. The district enacted a temporary mask requirement for staff based on CDC guidelines. After months of mostly not wearing masks, staff at the meeting and most of the board resumed wearing a mask.

Credit: Screenshot / Gwinnett County Public Schools

Combined ShapeCaption
Dr. Audrey Arona, director of the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale health departments, briefed the Gwinnett County school board about recent COVID-19 trends on Thursday, July 21, 2022. The district enacted a temporary mask requirement for staff based on CDC guidelines. After months of mostly not wearing masks, staff at the meeting and most of the board resumed wearing a mask.

Credit: Screenshot / Gwinnett County Public Schools

Credit: Screenshot / Gwinnett County Public Schools

Dr. Audrey Arona, director of the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale health departments, said that masks are one element in preventing the spread of the virus. She pledged to send Knudsen studies about their effectiveness.

Another metro area district made a similar decision to Gwinnett’s.

Clayton County Public Schools announced that all employees and visitors will be required to wear masks in school buildings starting July 25.

“This proactive step is being taken in an effort to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus within our district and limit the potential for instructional disruption,” a district news release stated.


BY THE NUMBERS

3,686: Number of average daily COVID-19 cases recorded in Georgia at the peak of the first pandemic surge, with what is now called the alpha variant, on July 9, 2020.

469: Number of average daily cases recorded at the trough after the omicron surge, on April 8, 2022.

4,107: Number of average daily cases recorded this week, on July 20, 2022, with the BA.5 variant ascendant.

Source: Georgia Department of Public Health. Note: All numbers are recorded as a rolling seven-day average of all available cases. In July of 2020, rapid antigen tests were not yet available to be included in case totals.

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