Metro schools ease mask mandates after CDC’s latest guidelines

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the end of mandatory mask usage in schools Friday, leading three metro school systems still with mask mandates to end them.

Gwinnett County Public Schools, just a few hours after the CDC announcement, said starting Monday, masks will be “strongly recommended” inside school facilities but no longer required.

Atlanta Public Schools is waiting an extra day, saying its buildings will become mask-optional beginning Tuesday. The district initially said masks would still be required on buses, but late Monday said they would be optional there, too, citing an update to CDC guidance.

ExploreHere's how to look up CDC's new COVID-19 masking guidelines for your county

“APS recognizes that some students and staff may prefer to continue wearing a mask indoors, and we support this decision,” the school district said on its website Friday night.

Also on Tuesday, APS students who play sports or participate in extracurricular activities will no longer be required to take COVID-19 tests, a rule that went into place last month.

On Sunday, the Decatur school district announced that as of Tuesday, masks will be strongly recommended rather than mandatory.

At least two other metro districts with mask mandates did not make immediate decisions.

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After a few days, the DeKalb County School District announced it was dropping its mask mandate. However, mask wearing will be “strongly encouraged” indoors and on buses for all staff, students and visitors starting Wednesday.

Clayton schools had not made a decision by Sunday afternoon. Morcease Beasley, the superintendent, wrote on Twitter Saturday that the school system “will continue to make responsible mask decisions that are best for our community. We know this pandemic impacts all and it takes all working safely in the same spaces to continue face-to-face. We will not allow masks to be a wedge/culture issue dividing our community.”

COVID-19 cases have fallen more than 60% in Gwinnett, Fulton and DeKalb counties the past two weeks and are back to levels before the omicron variant surge. Deaths remain at elevated rates in DeKalb and Fulton counties, averaging about four to five deaths per day. But none of the counties are considered at a “high level of risk” as defined by the CDC.

Gwinnett schools saw COVID case counts peak in mid-January but fall more than 90% in just over a month.

Meanwhile, Gov. Brian Kemp will keep pushing for legislation that would let parents decide whether to send their children to school in masks.

Senate Bill 514 would allow them to ignore any school district mask mandate through June 2023. It advanced out of a Senate committee last week over the objections of Democrats, who noted that it conflicted with the CDC guidance in place at the time.

The CDC’s new stance resolves that discrepancy, but Kemp still wants the bill to become law.

“Our law would still provide more clarity and certainty for the time period until the sunset if CDC were to change course,” Kemp spokeswoman Katie Byrd said.

It would also let parents opt out of any lingering local mandates.

Most Georgia school districts have already made masks voluntary. Cherokee, Forsyth and Cobb counties, for instance, have made masks optional since last August. Fayette County schools went mask-optional last month while Henry County schools made the same move earlier this month.

As of Feb. 18, 44 of the state’s 180 school districts were requiring masks in at least some of their schools, according to Kemp’s office. The CDC shift is expected to reduce that number significantly.