Metro Atlanta schools weigh changes after CDC’s new mask guidance

August 26, 2020 Lawrenceville - Deborah Clinkscales, assistant principal, directs students to maintain social distance as students wearing masks arrive to Jackson Elementary School for the first day of school amid the coronavirus outbreak on Wednesday, August 26, 2020. Only kindergartners, first graders and special ed students are coming back, and half the district's students overall have chosen to have in-person instruction this semester. Students are required to wear masks. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
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August 26, 2020 Lawrenceville - Deborah Clinkscales, assistant principal, directs students to maintain social distance as students wearing masks arrive to Jackson Elementary School for the first day of school amid the coronavirus outbreak on Wednesday, August 26, 2020. Only kindergartners, first graders and special ed students are coming back, and half the district's students overall have chosen to have in-person instruction this semester. Students are required to wear masks. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Vaccinated students and staff in the Cobb County and Marietta City school systems will no longer be required to wear masks, but other metro Atlanta districts are still weighing options.

Cobb and Marietta updated their mask policies to reflect the latest guidance issued Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They were the first metro Atlanta school districts to announce changes.

The CDC’s new recommendations state people who are fully vaccinated no longer have to wear a mask or socially distance indoors or outdoors, except when it’s required by federal, state and local laws, as well as by local businesses and workplaces. It’s still calling for wearing masks in crowded indoor settings.

The Georgia Department of Education is not tracking mask policies and the state’s 180 school districts are free to make their own rules.

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Atlanta Public Schools said in a statement Friday that masks will continued to be required inside district buildings through the end of the school year, which ends May 26. The statement added: “We are actively reviewing all aspects of this issue and will provide an update to our policy and practices” in light of the new CDC guidance.

Gwinnett County Public Schools’ guidance regarding masks for students and employees has not changed as of Friday morning, said Sloan Roach, school district spokeswoman.

“There’s lots of conversations taking place,” she said.

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A DeKalb County schools spokeswoman also said the district’s policy is under review.

Fulton, Clayton County, Fayette County and Henry County public schools are keeping policies in place that require staff and students to wear masks inside buildings.

Fulton County Superintendent Mike Looney said at Thursday’s board meeting that the district will consult with public health officials to determine “what, if any, changes will need to be made going forward.”

He noted only nine more school days remain before the end of the school year.

Maggie Fehrman was recently named the new superintendent of City Schools of Decatur. (Courtesy City Schools of Decatur)
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Maggie Fehrman was recently named the new superintendent of City Schools of Decatur. (Courtesy City Schools of Decatur)

Superintendent Maggie Ferhman told parents in an email Friday that City Schools of Decatur’s district’s mask mandate will remain in place. The school year ends there in two weeks.

“I know that many of our high school students have been fully vaccinated and are probably as ready as I am to throw our masks away,” she wrote. “However, I need your help to make sure we finish this year strong.”

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This school year, seven metro districts reported nearly 17,000 cases of COVID-19 among teachers and staff so far. The districts are: Atlanta, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fayette, Fulton and Gwinnett.

Cobb Superintendent Chris Ragsdale and Marietta Superintendent Grant Rivera both said anyone in their districts who wishes to wear a mask at schools or school-sponsored events can do so. Both superintendents also said they expect to start the 2021-22 school with masks being optional.

“We are looking forward to returning our entire focus to teaching and learning as soon as possible as one team,” Ragsdale said in a news release.

Cobb County School District Superintendent Chris Ragsdale speaks before a tour of McEachern High School in Powder Springs, Georgia, on Feb. 13, 2020. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the AJC)
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Cobb County School District Superintendent Chris Ragsdale speaks before a tour of McEachern High School in Powder Springs, Georgia, on Feb. 13, 2020. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the AJC)

At a Fulton school board meeting Thursday on the district’s south side, several speakers asked officials to wait before lifting the indoor mask mandate.

Griff Murray, a high school teacher and vice president of the Fulton County Association of Educators, told the board he and his colleagues have been teaching with masks and without any problems.

ExploreFulton County Schools to relax some COVID-19 rules

”We can breathe just fine,” he said. “We are still going to play it safe until the end of the school year, and we can still breathe just fine. And we implore the public to gently pause all the screaming and the shouting until the end of the school year.”

The Fulton district began relaxing mask rules for outdoor activities this month. Starting Monday, as previously announced, elementary schools will allow students to remove masks when they are outside.

“Since last August, we have had a cautious and measured approach to reopening schools to face-to-face instruction,” Looney said. “That approach has served us well.”

Henry County schools district also recently relaxed some restrictions, including making masks optional at all outdoor activities, such as the district’s 2021 graduation ceremonies, and increasing seating capacity from 33% to 50% at outdoor events.

Across Georgia

Many of the state’s school district appear to be mask optional already and the new federal guidance will likely push more school leaders further in that direction, said Bronwyn Ragan-Martin, the Early County superintendent and president of the Georgia School Superintendents Association.

”I’d say most weren’t mandating masks probably since January,” she said.

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On Friday, Georgia’s superintendents had a statewide conference call where the guidance was discussed.

One superintendent said it would be difficult for schools to police whether people not wearing masks were vaccinated, Ragan-Martin said. They were also concerned about medical privacy, and didn’t want to be in a position demanding to see proof of vaccination.

Most parents in multiple surveys have expressed reluctance to vaccinate their children. Ragan-Martin doubts many of her eligible students are vaccinated. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been authorized for children as young as 12.

Ragan-Martin thinks has not mandated masks in elementary schools, but she said most of students wear them anyway. She requires them in middle and high schools. With summer break starting next Friday in Early County, she sees no reason to change that now.

That policy will likely change for next fall though.

“Most of us are leaning mask optional,” she said.

Staff reporters Alia Malik and Leon Stafford contributed to this report.