More than 200 parents and community members — and a candidate for governor — gathered outside Gwinnett county Public Schools’ J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center Friday night to protest the district’s decision this week to reinstate a mask mandate for the system’s students and employees.
The district announced plans Tuesday to reinstate the face mask mandate after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance earlier in the day that said people should wear face masks, even if they are fully vaccinated, because of the Delta variant of COVID-19.
Gwinnett County Public Schools former Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, whose last day was Friday, announced masks will be required in GCPS facilities and on school buses. The requirement applies to all students, staff and visitors regardless of whether they have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
“The facts and recommendations are clear… masks do make a difference and we must do all we can to keep students in school, in person,” Wilbanks said.
The decision to reinstate the mask mandate in Gwinnett schools reignited a debate that had seemingly ended with the conclusion of the 2020-2021 school year and led to a stand off at the school board meeting in May when several parents refused to comply with the previous mandate.
One of the leaders of a group of Gwinnett parents who have been pushing back against mask mandates, critical race theory and other issues told parents gathered for an anti-mask rally at the ISC on Friday that district leaders have been served with a writ of mandamus explaining that parents will file a lawsuit against the district if the new mandate is not rescinded.
The parents are getting some support from officials in the political arena, including state Sen. Clint Dixon and Republican gubernatorial candidate Vernon Jones, who is challenging Gov. Brian Kemp for the GOP’s nomination in 2022.
Jones, at one point, cited John Lewis’ “Good Trouble” slogan and said he was willing to get arrested.
“I don’t want these babies to be in a mask all day long,” Jones told the crowd. “It’s uncomfortable for them. It’s basically child abuse.”
Gwinnett parents are being given until Aug. 2 to decide if they want to change their reference for how their child will be taught this semester, meaning whether they want their children taught in-person or digitally.
The district is telling families to contact their local school if they want to make a change in how they prefer to have their children taught.
“We realize this does not allow families a lot of time to make this decision, but we must have this information by this date to ensure schools are staffed appropriately to serve students and student schedules are finalized prior to the start of school,” Wilbanks said.
The move to require masks in school comes as case numbers continue a sharp rise in Gwinnett County. The two-week new COVID-19 case rate in Gwinnett has more than quadrupled in less than a month, with steady increases each week.
On Friday, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported that there had been 1,342 new COVID-19 cases in Gwinnett alone in the last two weeks. That was up from Tuesday — the day the mask mandate was announced — when the state reported 1,055 new cases in Gwinnett County in the preceding two weeks.
By comparison, Tuesday’s number itself is up from the two-week total of 642 new cases as of one week earlier, on July 20, 409 new cases for the two-week period ending July 13 and 304 new cases for the two-week period ending July 6.
Gwinnett leads Georgia in total cases since the pandemic arrived in the state in March 2020, with state health officials reporting a total of 89,765 cases, 5,397 hospitalizations, 1,136 confirmed deaths and 80 probable deaths in the county.
District officials said their primary concerns was the health and safety of students and staff. Other reasons why they chose to reinstate the mask mandate was that was they felt it was important for students to be in school but elementary and younger middle school age students are ineligible to get vaccinated at this time while several students and staff members who are eligible to be vaccinated have chosen to not do so.
The district also cited CDC and other health partners who have pointed to mask wearing, even by people who are vaccinated, as a key mitigation tool. There has also been a federal executive order that requires students wear face masks on school buses, GCPS officials said.
GCPS officials did say, however, that students who are in close contact with a classmate who tests positive for COVID-19 does not have to go into quarantine if both students have been wearing face masks.
If either of them have not been wearing a mask, however, and quarantine is necessary, the students have to remain in quarantine for up to two weeks.
“While disappointed that the school year will start with masks, GCPS is very happy that its students will be starting the school year in person,” district officials said in their announcement.
“Please know that district leaders will continue to monitor for new guidance from the CDC, health partners, and the state, using it to make updates throughout the 2021–22 school year.”
New GCPS Superintendent Calvin Watts said he is willing to hear the concerns raised by parents who do not want the mask mandate to be in place. Watts takes over the district’s leader on Monday.
“What I am hearing is that they are not appreciative of having their students, their children, to wear masks,” Watts said. “What we’re saying is that ... we need to rely on the expertise of those who are in the (epidemiology) field at CDC, that’s providing us the guidance that we’re following.
“At which time the guidance needs to change based on our metrics, our numbers, we will watch the signs, we will watch the information and the data.”
District officials said there will be mask breaks at the schools and the school leaders will be reaching out to their staffs about scheduling those breaks.
Kids will be allowed to take their masks off when they are outside, during lunch and during mask breaks and students who participate in band and physical education activities will be given times of the day when they don’t have to wear masks.
The district also said it will make accommodations for students and GCPS employees who cannot wear masks because of documented medical reasons such as sensory issues, asthma or other pulmonary conditions.
“A layered approach is needed to keep our students safe and in school,” Wilbanks said. “Masks are one of the tools proven to be effective in stopping the spread of COVID-19. It is time for us to mask up and take advantage of vaccination opportunities to help our community get past the pandemic.”