Fulton County Schools plans to open mask-optional campus

Protesters opposed to Fulton County Schools' mask requirement hold up signs outside of the board meeting on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. VANESSA McCRAY/AJC

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Protesters opposed to Fulton County Schools' mask requirement hold up signs outside of the board meeting on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. VANESSA McCRAY/AJC

Fulton County Schools is proposing to open a mask-optional campus to serve families upset over rules requiring face coverings.

The district’s plan, announced Thursday, goes beyond what many metro Atlanta districts are doing to provide options for students, but it did little to appease dozens of protesters who gathered outside a board meeting later that day.

The crowd’s chants of “no more masks” could be heard by the officials conducting business inside. They pressed signs reading “Lions not sheep” and “Control freaks are the minority” against the meeting room’s windows.

Classes started Monday in Fulton with masks required in all but 15 schools. Days later, the state’s fourth-largest district announced that COVID-19 case numbers were high enough to warrant mandating masks in all schools.

“It’s really hard to believe we are here today. We had every intention going into this fall to make masks optional because we truly believed that we had successfully managed the peak of the COVID curve,” said Superintendent Mike Looney. “Unfortunately, over the course of the last couple of weeks, the evidence has continued to suggest that we have another peak to deal with.”

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People opposed to Fulton County Schools' mask mandate protest outside a board meeting on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. VANESSA McCRAY/AJC

Credit: Vanessa McCray

People opposed to Fulton County Schools' mask mandate protest outside a board meeting on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. VANESSA McCRAY/AJC

Credit: Vanessa McCray

Combined ShapeCaption
People opposed to Fulton County Schools' mask mandate protest outside a board meeting on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. VANESSA McCRAY/AJC

Credit: Vanessa McCray

Credit: Vanessa McCray

In the first three days of school, 172 students and 26 staff tested positive for COVID-19, Looney said. In the days just before school started, Fulton reported another 91 total cases.

The district is working on two alternatives for families who either don’t want their child to wear a mask or who are concerned about the spread of the virus even with the safety measure in place.

A mask-optional “learning hub” would serve up to 500 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. It would be located at the recently vacated Crabapple Middle School in Roswell.

The district also wants to provide a virtual option for up to 300 students in kindergarten through second grade.

Fulton opened a new online school this year for students in third through 11th grades.

The launch of both programs on Sept. 7 is contingent on Fulton finding enough teachers and parent interest. Looney said no teachers will be forced to work at the mask-optional site.

Neither of the academic alternatives satisfied Sarah Pedro, among those who gathered to protest the mask rules. She said masks should be optional in all schools and that the learning hub would “segregate the kids based on their choices.”

”It’s political. It’s not about kids health any more with the Fulton County school board,” she said.

Tamara Stevens, the mother of a high school student, told the board the mask requirement is the “best possible shot at keeping our kids in school and our schools open.”

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Opponents of Fulton County Schools' mask mandate protest outside a board meeting on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. VANESSA McCRAY/AJC

Credit: Vanessa McCray

Opponents of Fulton County Schools' mask mandate protest outside a board meeting on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. VANESSA McCRAY/AJC

Credit: Vanessa McCray

Combined ShapeCaption
Opponents of Fulton County Schools' mask mandate protest outside a board meeting on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. VANESSA McCRAY/AJC

Credit: Vanessa McCray

Credit: Vanessa McCray

“Is it a perfect policy that will completely stop COVID from spreading? No. But the data shows that it helps and is our first line of defense,” she said.

She said parents who don’t want their children to wear a mask can learn at home, enroll in a private school or sign up for the new hub.

Board members expressed support for the district’s new options.

“I really appreciate the out-of-the-box thinking,” said Gail Dean. “I haven’t seen anything like this in any other district, and I think that we truly are trying to provide choice.”