Fulton County Schools to drop mask mandate after next vaccine rollout

Fulton County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney plans to lift the mask mandate a month after the district’s young students become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
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Fulton County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney plans to lift the mask mandate a month after the district’s young students become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Fulton County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney plans to lift the district’s mask mandate a month after young students become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

The district initially planned to make masks optional this school year, but officials changed the rules citing a high level of COVID-19 cases during the back-to-school season.

Looney on Thursday announced that the mask requirement, which Fulton recently successfully defended in court, will soon be relaxed.

Face coverings will become optional 30 days after vaccine eligibility expands to include children ages 5 to 11. Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine is expected to be authorized soon for that younger age group.

“We’re not promoting the vaccine. We’re not going to require the vaccine, but we do know as more people become vaccinated we see less cases and less severe cases in our schools,” Looney said during a board meeting. “We intend to allow families 30 days to consider becoming vaccinated and at that time we will make masks optional.”

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Masks may come off in many schools even earlier.

That’s because Looney also announced another change to what the district calls its “mitigation matrix.” Currently, masks must be worn in schools located in cities with more than 100 cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period. All Fulton schools have met that threshold since the first week of classes in August.

But Looney said he will start to use school-level case numbers when making mask decisions.

Beginning Nov. 1, Looney said he will waive the mandate at schools where the ratio of positive COVID-19 cases is less than 1% of student enrollment. For example, masks would be required in a 1,000-student school if more than 10 students are positive within a week’s period.

Looney said the district will publish school case numbers on Fridays and give families notice whether masks will be required at their school the following Monday.

While several board members applauded the move, it upset parents who think masks are a key safety measure.

Just nine days earlier, in response to a board member’s questions, Looney said he was hesitant to change the standards because it leads to “whiplash and confusion.”

Allison Rentz, who has a vaccinated child in middle school, said the policy shift caught her off-guard. As Looney predicted, she’s confused.

“And I think a lot of other people are,” Rentz said.

She said a 30-day window doesn’t provide enough time to fully vaccinate children who will be newly eligible. She’s worried that masks may well come off in schools just as the busy holiday season starts. And she’s concerned that school case counts may be underreported because some parents may not have their child tested or notify the district of a positive result.

Rentz said the district should offer to open an in-person learning site where masks are required, just as it attempted to do with a mask-optional campus. (Officials ultimately scuttled the mask-optional plan citing a lack of interest from parents).

Looney said cases are dropping and the level of city spread isn’t always reflective of what’s happening inside a school.

As of Oct. 14, the district has reported nearly 3,800 cases of COVID-19 among students and staff, according to data reports posted weekly on its website. The district said Friday those weekly updates may include duplicate cases and reporting errors. Officials said the cumulative tally is actually fewer, pegging it at 3,547 cases.

The district said the Fulton County Board of Health has provided advice throughout the pandemic, but the health agency “did not specifically give a recommendation” on the revised mask guidelines.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in August recommended universal masking in schools, regardless of vaccination status.

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In September, a group of parents sued the district seeking to overturn the mandate. A judge rejected the parents’ request for a temporary restraining order to bar the district from enforcing the mask rules. The plaintiffs plan to appeal.

Board member Linda McCain, who represents Johns Creek and Alpharetta, said many parents want Fulton to drop the mask mandate.

“They want the choice that they thought they were going to have when they signed up at the beginning of the school year,” she said, at Thursday’s meeting.

Looney said students will continue to wear masks on buses because of a federal order, although he said the district’s legal team is reviewing that issue.

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