Mask policy conflicts flare as Georgia schools cope with children’s COVID surge

By: - August 27, 2021 1:00 am

A masked Forsyth Central High School studies on her laptop during her lunch break in this 2020 file photo. School districts are taking a variety of approaches to high numbers of COVID-19 cases among children. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

For many Cobb County residents, the local school district tops their list of reasons for moving to the suburban county north of Atlanta.

High schools there are often ranked among the best in the state and country, and for sale signs outside of Cobb homes often feature the name of the local high school in bold, capital letters.

Natalie Subyak felt the same way for most of the nearly six years she has lived there with her husband and four children, but that started to change last year as the pandemic began to affect everything, including school life.

It was not an easy decision, but the family has decided to move. They were hoping to be in their new Walton County home before classes began, but construction has been delayed.

“It’s a strange feeling, because I mean, we really selected where we are living because of the schools, and it just kind of showed me that it doesn’t matter what the GreatSchools rating is, if they’re not going to behave like a community and really care about one another, whether they believe the same thing or not, It’s not going to matter that they have good literacy scores, because you’re still going to deal with all this extra drama, all this back and forth,” said Subyak, a retail manager. “I just never would have anticipated feeling this way.”

A difficult start to the school year

The pandemic has parents across Georgia feeling stressed as districts adapt on the fly to soaring numbers of sick children.

The COVID-19 symptoms are typically no worse than a cold for most children and young adults, but in rare cases they can become seriously ill, and experts warn that crowded hallways and classrooms can spread the virus to more vulnerable relatives at home.

More than 103,000 Georgians between 5 and 17 have tested positive for COVID-19, according to state Department of Public Health data, and cases are rapidly increasing.

The green line on this graph from the Georgia Department of Public Health shows the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases among 5 to 17-year-olds.

Some educators say teaching in classrooms with multiple absences has become the norm, and some districts are temporarily closing classroom doors in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 as local hospitals stretch their capacity — doctors have been pleading Georgians to mask up, and Gov. Brian Kemp has sent more staff as well as members of the Georgia National Guard to assist beleaguered medical workers, but hospitals continue to divert patients arriving by ambulance because of overcrowded emergency departments, according to the Department of Public Health.

Statewide, 26 districts and charter schools are going virtual, according to data tracked by The Associated Press.

Ware County students are set to head back to school Sept. 7 after a two-week pause with no virtual instruction. There simply were not enough employees to run the schools, the district said on social media.

“Some staff members are dealing with their own illness or sickness in their families, so they are unable to work right now,” a district representative wrote on Facebook. “Staff members at two schools are grieving significant losses. Many of our staff members have reported that this has been the most difficult start of a new year they’ve ever experienced. For those reasons and others, we felt the best course of action was to hit the pause button and give staff and students time to recover physically and emotionally.”

Many districts are moving classes, grades or entire schools online as the situation deteriorates. Clayton County announced Tuesday it would be moving nine of its 67 schools online in response to increasing infections.

Other schools are responding to rising cases by implementing mask mandates. At least 56 of Georgia’s 180 districts representing more than half of Georgia’s nearly 2 million public school students are now required to mask up, according to the AP data.

Masks optional

But some large districts, including Cherokee, Paulding and Cobb counties are declining to follow CDC guidelines and implement universal indoor masking in their schools, sparking fierce debate outside district meetings.

Cobb County has been at the forefront of Georgia’s recent political shift, with its large, young and rapidly diversifying population increasingly voting for Democrats in what was once a Republican stronghold.

Last year, the county commission, sheriff’s office and district attorney all flipped Democratic, but the school board remains under Republican control.

Discussions over masks have sparked protests and counter protests outside of district meetings, as well as public outcry after one board member sent a conspiratorial anti-vaccine video to concerned parents.

Subyak said she feels Republican members of the board are catering to a small but vocal minority of conservatives who oppose COVID safety measures for cultural rather than health reasons.

“We’ve had so many great teachers and some of the administrators are really kind, good people,” she said. “The reality is, when we go to the schools, last year, this year, they’re not making decisions that are based off of scientific recommendations. They’re not masking, they’re not treating you seriously with reporting the number of children who have COVID. A lot of times it can take days or even a week for our parents to get notified that their child was a close contact.”

Talia Mejia, the mom of a Cobb County third grader, is teaching her son at home out of concern about the virus’ spread in the state’s second-largest school district, which does not have a mask mandate.

Mejia, who is pregnant, said she’s worried about what catching COVID-19 could mean for her, her son and the new baby.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though the overall risk of severe illness is low, pregnant women are more likely to develop serious symptoms than non-pregnant people, and pregnant women with COVID-19 are at increased risk for preterm birth.

Seeing the largely unmasked crowds of students and teachers at her son’s schools made Mejia anxious, she said. On top of that, her son’s homeroom teacher was out the second week of classes.

“And then he actually got two close contact letters in the first three weeks of school that he was there,” said Mejia, who works in public relations and marketing. “And so what that means is that he was in contact directly with someone who was COVID positive.”

As of Friday, there have been 1,764 reported cases of COVID-19 in Cobb County Schools.

“So of course, I did not bring him in the next day, I decided to quarantine. He’s been quarantined,” Mejia said Wednesday. “Tomorrow would be the tenth day, but I withdrew him today because I was just like, this is not going to get any better, it’s only going to get worse.”

The boy has been studying at home with the help of mom and an online homeschool curriculum, and so far, it’s been a good experience.

He’s having fun learning, they’re planning field trips, and most importantly, Mejia said she has less worry about her family getting sick.

“It provides freedom for my son, for me and him not to be scared,” she said. “I wouldn’t even touch him when he would come back, he would go directly into the shower, and I wouldn’t touch him and I wouldn’t cuddle with him at night. Now, we can cuddle at night. Now I can be with him.”

For now, things are good, but Mejia said she may send her son back next year if the virus is under control so he can socialize with other children there.

It’s just frustrating that the district appears not to have been prepared for so many cases, she said.

“A bunch of people have talked about the potential for variants and so forth, so even if they decided no virtual, there should have been another plan or something in place,” she said. “Because the teachers are overworked, they’re flustered. So when I take my kid to school, I’m getting an overworked, scared, flustered teacher that may or may not be there.”

The grass is always greener

But it’s not just parents in mask-optional districts who want in. Some in mask-required districts say they want out.

Barbara Skok is a Columbus mom and the founder of a group called Moms Against Mandatory Masking.

She said her children are stuck in a kind of limbo because they will not wear masks in school. She’s teaching them at home but keeping them enrolled so they can go back once the mandate is lifted.

“We can’t actually pull them out in homeschool because then when masks are made optional, our kids lose their slots in their schools here, you’re pushed out of your zoned school, like they fill up because they’re choice schools here,” she said. “So you have to stay enrolled. So currently, they’re registered with Muscogee County School District, all four children, but they have been unenrolled by their schools because they weren’t allowed in their schools on the first day.”

Skok said her children were not allowed in the door that day.

“I would never cause a scene in front of my children, but they just said ‘no, kids have to wear masks,’ I said ‘no, we don’t consent to masks. My son just became verbal six months ago. He’s autistic. He’s been known to revert. I just absolutely can’t.’ They said, ‘well, they can’t come in school without masks.’”

Skok said she has friends who have or live with people who have medical conditions making them vulnerable to COVID-19, and she thinks they should have the right to wear masks, but she wants her family to have the same right to decide for themselves.

For Skok’s son with autism, masks are difficult to keep on and they prevent him from communicating. For the others, she said it’s a matter of setting an example.

“My biggest thing is, I’m going to tell my children, ‘hey, just do this because people just tell you to do it, OK? Everybody else is doing it, and everybody else thinks you should do it.’ And they say ‘Why? Does it protect me? Does it protect others?’ No, it doesn’t do any of those things. But because other people think you should. This is what I’m supposed to tell them?”

The CDC says multiple studies have found community masking reduces the spread of the virus by preventing the spread of infected respiratory droplets and has no significant adverse health effects.

Skok said if the school district offered a virtual option, she’d gladly sign them up, but for now, she’s doing her best to make sure they learn at home and hoping the mandate will be lifted so they can get back to class.

“I don’t know how they’re getting away with it,” she said. “I don’t know how they’re getting away with taking money from taxpayers and refusing to provide that service to the taxpayer. And I’m a nobody, I’m just a mom of four. So the fact that we have no doctors rising up against it, no lawyers rising up against it, that everybody is just happy to comply, and just go on, just shows me ‘Okay, well, you need to stop fighting. And you need to just start taking care of your kids. You can’t want more for a community than it wants for itself.’ And so, I’m going to sit back and homeschool my kids while paying for their public education, and honestly, just troll the hell out of the school board.”

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.